Futuristic cars may soon take flight

Talent, industry unite in CID as DriveOhio, Microsoft, CBTS, UC students bring drone travel to life

Abstract notions of seeing sleek and stealthy flying octopods — humming along Ohio’s interstate airspace carrying cargo, medical supplies (blood, organs, materials) or even humans themselves — are not so far-fetched, according to students at the University of Cincinnati.

When UC and the Cincinnati Innovation District® get down to business with some of the most seasoned air mobility professionals, great things tend to happen. 

The FlyOhio Vertiport Innovation Challenge, recently coordinated by UC’s Office of Innovation and FlyOhio, a division of DriveOhio, the state’s center for smart mobility, along with Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions (CBTS) and UC’s new innovation partner Microsoft, brought industry professionals together to collaborate with UC talent and help bring future innovation within reach.

According to David J. Adams, architect of the CID and UC’s chief innovation officer, innovation challenges like FlyOhio are important to solving actual problems by establishing an environment for ‘creative collisions.’ “Organizations and companies are trying to connect with talent — students, researchers and educators — to solve real-world challenges. The CID provides the physical and virtual environment that makes that happen. It’s a great learning opportunity for everyone,” says Adams.

Even the state of Ohio leadership is taking notice of what’s happening inside the CID — now the model for the state.

“Innovation and collaboration are pillars as we work to make Ohio the most innovative state in the Midwest,” said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted during the opening of the event. “Today’s collaboration between student talent and inventive companies exemplifies the inclusive, connective and purpose-built ecosystem that is transforming our heartland.”

Rendering of drones taking off from a Vertiport carrying packages with a Cincy skyline in background.

Student challenge team One the 'Vertibirds,' illustrate how a NESTRoof acts as a landing pad and takeoff zone for package delivery. Drones on top of the PERCH take off when the panel gets to the top. Post-delivery drone replaces empty spot on PERCH. PERCH charges the drone as it moves downward on the conveyor belt. Drone then gets new package and heads back up to the roof. Photo/Haley Rich

In the groundbreaking challenge, students across campus from a variety of fields including mechanical, aerospace and computer science engineering, as well as industrial design, business marketing and mathematics majors looked forward to the unique opportunity to collaborate with and learn from national and international leaders in air mobility.

More competitions like this are where I think UC is really key because we have such a wide variety of student challenge events and experiential opportunities. This helps account for the number of engineering students looking forward to staying and working in the Cincinnati Innovation District area.

Sagar Tiwari UC mechanical engineering student

Rendering of a drone Vertiport showing helicopters in the air.

Team Four's sophisticated Vertiport hub design. Photo/Ngoc Luong

The result was two-fold giving industry leaders the opportunity to collaborate with students and students the opportunity to make important industry connections while learning to strategize on ideas that can make a monumental impact on the community. 

A total of six teams were tasked with redefining the future of transportation in the region by creating advanced air mobility solutions with automated and connected solutions on the ground — ideally to enable the safe, easy and equitable movement of people and goods in the Cincinnati region.

Even creating mathematical algorithms for the most cost-effective designs were critical concepts the students tackled successfully. 

The weekend’s winning ideas included strategies for smart medical supply mobility using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and sustainable vertiports located near retail centers while incorporating fuzzy logic AI control systems and noise reduction methods.

Managing the swarm

Computer screen showing nine people in a virtual meeting.

As industry experts engaged with students on technical and innovative strategies, UC business analytics student Bhagya Godakanda (right center) shows excitement over winning the second day’s creative engagement prize, a Surface Pro tablet from Microsoft. Photo/provided

Guided by air mobility industry experts during the two-day, weekend event, students began engaging in technical discussions on everything from logistics issues to preventing the collisions of hundreds of whirling flying machines — largely motivated by highly advanced broadband requirements for keeping a manned-vehicle or UAV on course above major Ohio interstate routes. 

Rich Granger, managing director of workforce and economic development at DriveOhio, led innovation ground mobility challenges with universities in Ohio before and noted this first-of-a-kind challenge opened the door to discovering fresh new talent with fresh new ideas. “This was our first drone air mobility challenge, and it was a fantastic event,” says Granger. “It exceeded our already high expectations of the level of student innovation.”

As the FlyOhio kickoff for the whole state, Granger looks forward to UC and the CID to set the pace for a whole statewide series of events. As more and more innovative students and graduates are choosing to stay in the CID region — for all the thriving opportunities in one of the most affordable cities in the country — Cincinnati has become a growing beacon of innovation to the region and state.

Power of ‘creative collisions’

Four men on a computer screen in a virtual meeting.

Tim Lonsway, upper left, VP public sector for Cincinnati Bell helps hash out collaborative strategies for the student challenge with Ken Stapleton, lower left, senior director of UC Innovation Relations, RJ Sargent, lower right, director business professional development for UC Office of Innovation and Jesse Lawrence, upper right, assistant director partnerships and industry alliances for UC Office of Innovation. Photo/provided

As savvy teams began to dive deeper into how battery powered air mobility could revolutionize the current ecosystem, they ramped up their reconnaissance research to look closer at wind issues, terrain, noise factors and FAA rules.

Together, their collaborations contributed a bevy of inspiration for bringing futuristic drone mobility to life as a way to move packages and people around the region in sustainable ways to boost the economy, save time, reduce the carbon footprint and improve lives across the state.

UC student Ponaravind Muthaiah

Ponaravind Muthaiah, team Four aerospace engineering student worked remotely with his teammates using NASA concepts for efficient unmanned traffic management infrastructure. Photo/provided

Tim Lonsway, vice-president public sector at Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions (CBTS), was especially impressed with the way the teams addressed cyber security issues as they schemed, sketched and calculated figures on white boards. 

Bhagya Godakanda, UC business analytics student who will graduate this spring, won the second day’s creative engagement prize and was presented with a shiny new Surface tablet by UC innovation partner Microsoft.

Godakanda, who recently accepted a position with J.P. Morgan Chase in Cincinnati as a wealth management analyst says, “I love UC for giving me the opportunity to take advantage of co-op programs and student challenges like this. I feel fully prepared to graduate in a month and get out in the real world with these experiences.”

Why it matters

Virtual meeting with screen showing rendering of drone flying over cars.

Unmanned battery-powered aerial mobility may soon replace a large share of package delivery from ground transportation relieving congested roadways and reducing the carbon footprint. Photo/provided

Among the collaborations he enjoyed as a team member, Sagar Tiwari, UC fifth-year mechanical engineering student and winner of the first day’s panel discussion, was especially grateful for the opportunity to work with the industry panelists who were all experts in the field.

“More competitions like this are where I think UC is really key because we have such a wide variety of student challenge events and experiential opportunities that help account for the number of engineering students looking forward to staying and working in the Cincinnati Innovation District area,” says Tiwari. 

Participants like My Dinh, UC third-year business student with a double major in marketing and business analytics and a member of the event’s winning team who presented on Smart Medical Supply Mobility, says, “Working together virtually is also a good model for how well teams can perform on any project while together or apart.”

Rendering of a vertiport building with drones surrounding it in the air. The Cincinnati InnovationDistrict logo in lower right corner.

Team Four's innovative strategies for landing and takeoff were presented at the end of the FlyOhio Challenge. Photo/Ngoc Luong

Megan Graf, third-year industrial design student from UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), and member of the team "VertiBirds," was intrigued by the way her design of the vertiport infrastructure interplayed well with aerospace engineering student Mason Turvey’s work on fuzzy architecture and control systems.

UC student My Dinh smiles with her fist in the air from happiness.

My Dinh, UC business student is excited when she learns that her team number Four 'Smart Medical Supply Mobility' won the CID/FlyOhio Vertiport Innovation Challenge. Photo/provided

Jeen Jose, UC first-year graduate student in aerospace and aeroacoustics engineering, enjoyed the diverse learning environment. “Working in a team like this with people from different backgrounds, helps you see things from another perspective. We maximized our teamwork and built strong bonds — some that will last forever.”

Serendipitously, at the end of the action-packed event, all six team presentations came together with each project concept successfully complementing one another.

Winning team number Four, who had a compelling win with both First Prize and Audience Choice for their presentation titled “Smart medical supply mobility: A solution to saving lives” included students My Dinh, Lindner College of Business; both Tri Nguyen and Ponaravind Muthaiah, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Ngoc Luong, DAAP. The winning students also earned the opportunity to present two weeks later in front of industry leaders from Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions national team.

“This was a win for everyone involved — especially Cincinnati and the State of Ohio — as the ripples of this success will compound into the future,” says Scott Paja, assistant vice president of partner success in UC’s Office of Innovation.

Learn more about DriveOhio.


Featured image at top: An artist’s rendering of an urban air mobility environment, where air vehicles with a variety of missions, with or without pilots, are able to interact safely and efficiently. Photo/NASA-Lillian Gipson/DriveOhio

About the Cincinnati Innovation District®

The Cincinnati Innovation District® is a unique and thriving ecosystem that attracts, produces, retains and develops talent by co-locating and collaborating with organizations. Unveiled in 2020 by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted, the district envelops myriad innovation assets and access to some of the world’s leading academic and research centers, organizations and talent pools. Powered by the University of Cincinnati, the CID includes the world-renowned Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and other national research centers. The district’s mission is to become a globally recognized talent hub and lead a transformational movement. The combination of industry engagement, unique experiential platforms and accessible research expertise — working at the pace of change — will become a model nationwide. For more information on the Cincinnati Innovation District, visit www.cincyid.com.

About UC's 1819 Innovation Hub

The nerve center of the Cincinnati Innovation District®. Home to startups and midsized and Fortune 500 companies, the 1819 Innovation Hub is an ecosystem that serves as a catalyst for collaboration for industry and talent. The 1819 Innovation Hub is the home to UC’s Office of Innovation, UC’s Venture Lab (a startup accelerator program), UC’s Makerspace, UC’s Office of Technology Transfer and 14 corporate partners who are seeking access to talent and proximity for cross-collaboration. Partners that are currently embedded include: Procter & Gamble, Kroger, FIS, Kingsgate Logistics, Cincinnati Bell, Kao Brands, Hillman Accelerator, CincyTech, Village Life Outreach Project, Fifth Third Bank, Cincinnati Insurance Company, Live Well Collaborative and Simpson Center for Urban Futures.

Impact Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is leading public urban universities into a new era of innovation and impact. Our faculty, staff and students are saving lives, changing outcomes and bending the future in our city's direction. Next Lives Here.

Stay up to date on all UC's COVID-19 stories, or take a UC virtual visit and begin picturing yourself at an institution that inspires inspiration and incredible stories.

Related Stories


Bearcat alums become Tiger’s footwear designers

May 23, 2024

With degrees in industrial design from DAAP, Charley Hudak and Cody Caldon designed athletic footwear for several companies before joining the design team at Sun Day Red, Tiger Woods’ new line of golf footwear and performance apparel.

Debug Query for this