The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and commercial partners, including Project Wing (Google), testing NASA's traffic management system for unmanned aircraft

A suite of projects intended to bolster the region’s stake in the autonomous and electric vehicle sectors is in the running for up to $100 million in federal funding, Virginia Tech said Thursday.

A coalition of 50 public and private organizations led by the university is one of 60 finalists for awards through the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge, funded through the American Rescue Plan with the goal of boosting economic recovery from the pandemic recovery.

The group’s proposal focuses on how to make moving goods from place to place greener and more efficient, and it builds on the region’s existing transportation cluster, which includes companies such as Volvo Trucks, Eldor Corp. and Torc Robotics, as well as research groups such as the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

The proposal centers on three projects: a test bed for autonomous commercial vehicles, a test zone for delivery drones, and a training and entrepreneurial support network for the sector.

John Provo, Director, Office of Economic Development

John Provo, director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement at Virginia Tech, said the Build Back Better challenge asks applicants to look to the future of an industry – in particular, one that can address major national or global challenges – but to do it in a way that’s grounded in existing employment and expertise.

That led project leaders to look at the transportation sector, he said, which is already robust in the region but could benefit from an infusion of funding and research.

Additionally, transportation and logistics have gained new attention during the pandemic, as e-commerce has exploded and supply chains have been tested. The demand for truck freight movement grew 6% last year, according to the project proposal, while the World Economic Forum expects freight demand to triple by 2050.

“This is both forward-looking and real,” Provo said. “It certainly is about technology, but this is really about the regional economy and bringing technology and innovation in a real economy kind of way to a core industry cluster.”

The 60 finalists, who were chosen from a pool of 529 applicants, each will receive about $500,000 to further develop their proposed projects, according to a news release from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Finalists now will compete for Phase 2, which will award 20 to 30 regional coalitions up to $100 million each. 

The Tech-led coalition includes higher-education institutions, local governments, economic development groups and private businesses from 21 counties across southern and Southwest Virginia.

The group’s first proposed project, creating a test bed for automated electric freight and delivery vehicles, builds in part off work that’s already being done by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, including at its Smart Road test facility. 

Provo said expanded funding could allow for more real-world data-gathering – perhaps instrumenting a segment of Interstate 81 – to allow for more testing of automated heavy vehicles and for infrastructure research, such as how to develop and manage a network of electric charging stations.

The second project, which centers around drones, also would draw on existing regional expertise: Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership operates a drone test site designated by the Federal Aviation Administration, one of just seven in the country.

Around Southwest Virginia, MAAP’s researchers may be best known for their work with Wing, which in 2019 became the first drone operator cleared by the FAA to deliver goods commercially and launched a residential delivery program in Christiansburg. 

But unlike Wing, which delivers small packages to homes, this project would focus on how to move larger cargo via drone to commercial clients, like a part needed for an assembly line at a truck plant, said Tombo Jones, director of MAAP.

For that to work, drones must be able to safely navigate airspace beyond the operator’s line of sight, so a primary focus of the project would be to develop the technologies needed to keep drones away from other aircraft. MAAP will be working with companies including UPS and Raytheon, Jones said.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Senior Research Associate Jean Paul Talledo Vilela teaches a student about advanced technologies in vehicles at a community event. Institute researchers will have a significant role in this project.

The third project would build a network of universities, community colleges and other agencies to provide training, technical assistance and entrepreneurial development to support the industry.

A new Manufacturing Technologies Training Studio would be created at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. More than two dozen partners, including Virginia Western Community College, GENEDGE Alliance and the New River Valley Regional Commission, would create programming.

“This award opens the door to transformative economic opportunities for Southwest and Southern Virginia in the transportation and logistics sector, and the coalition led by Virginia Tech offers a remarkable hub of resources to support the growth of this industry,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said in a written statement.

The deadline for Phase 2 of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge is March 15.

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at or 540-819-4969.