Drones are big business. Although the best-known unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the armed Predator and Reaper drones dispatched by the American military and the CIA to battlefields worldwide, non-violent commercial drones are a boom industry. Aircraft manufacturers and lobbyists are pushing for legalized commercial usage of small UAVs in fields ranging from agriculture to landscape architecture. In Oklahoma, local politicians and businesspeople are launching an impressive project to guarantee their state remains at the center of America's domestic drone industry.
Oklahoma businesspeople, academics, and politicians are collaborating through an organization named USA-OK, which aims to make the heartland state the focal point of American UAV development. A quasi-affiliated group, the Governor's Unmanned Aerial Systems Council (PDF), was formed via an executive order from Governor Mary Fallin in 2011. Both organizations are lobbying for commercial drone test sites in Oklahoma and increased government assistance in luring more large military contractors to the state.
Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's Secretary of Science and Technology and a prominent figure in the state's UAV industry, told Fast Company that Oklahoma is already home to approximately 15 companies servicing the UAV industry—companies already operating within the state fulfill duties as diverse as assembling payloads for military drones and creating low-cost retail UAVs for the hobbyist market. According to McKeever, the state offers a variety of incentives and subsidies for aerospace companies of all sizes. These financial benefits apply, of course, to companies working on UAVs and related equipment.
Commercial drone usage inside the United States currently falls under the purview of an ambiguous, confusing legal regime. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently determining how to integrate UAVs into American airspace, and is expected by many industry watchers to legalize commercial drone usage (in a process known as "integration") in 2015. Last month, the FAA announced that they are seeking six domestic test sites for UAVs. Due to the obvious commercial possibilities in, say, selling small aircraft for $1,000 a pop to farmers and real estate agencies looking to do aerial monitoring on a budget, UAVs are potential huge business. Giants such as Boeing and hundreds of smaller companies see commercial UAV usage as a gold rush waiting to happen.
State authorities inside Oklahoma issued a strategic drone plan detailing ways to build up the local UAV industry. These plans center on bringing one of the domestic UAV test sites to Oklahoma, which already tests military UAVs. In the report, the state government proposes to expand existing drone test ranges, invest in research and development at several strategic laboratories, and to offer economic inducements for UAV manufacturers to relocate to Oklahoma.
A promotional video for Oklahoma's UAV industry is shown below.
This week, a major UAV convention took place in Oklahoma as well. The Oklahoma Unmanned Aerial Systems Summit, held in the college town of Norman, is sponsored by the aforementioned USA-OK. The agenda includes discussions of UAV use by emergency first responders, the Homeland Security Department's proposed domestic spy drones, workshops on potential UAV use in agriculture, and privacy concerns raised by the use of drones.
Drone manufacturers even have lobbyists. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is a trade organization which, among other things, represents America's UAV and UAV accessory manufacturers on Capitol Hill. Michael Toscano, the organization's president, advocates the integration of commercial drones into American airspace. Toscano, in an interview, stressed job creation possibilities if the FAA legalizes commercial drones. "[In] our analysis, we see that more than 70,000 new jobs would be created in the first three years of integration with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. While 34,000 of these jobs will be in manufacturing UAS, a large number of these jobs will be seen in the secondary and tertiary markets of parts and labor and community jobs as more money come into regions. We foresee that by 2025, UAV integration will create more than 100,000 jobs and have an economic impact of more than $82 billion," Toscano said.
Oklahoma is already one of America's aeronautics capitals thanks to the state's longstanding ties with military contractors and big aviation. The University Multispectral Lab at Oklahoma State University works as a "trusted agent" for the military and large defense contractors, and has played a major role in developing deadly technology used in armed military and intelligence drones. Scientists at the Multispectral Lab helped develop systems and sensors found in military drones, for instance. Oklahoma State University-Stillwater is one of the only universities in the world offering masters and doctoral degrees in STEM with concentrations in UAV technology.
In fact, Oklahoma's robust drone sector is an outgrowth of the state's strong defense contractor roots. Over 150,000 Oklahomans are already employed at defense contractors or major aerospace firms, and a state-funded study estimated that commercial drone legalization could add 600 new jobs in the first three years alone. Oklahoma also offers a variety of subsidies and grants to companies working on drone technology—both small startups and aerospace multinationals are eligible for the subsidies. When asked if Oklahoma's UAV industry is gearing up for integration of drones into standard American commercial airspace, McKeever said that it was "very likely" that commercial UAV use would be legal in the United States.
[Image: Governor's Oklahoma Unmanned Aerial Systems Council, and OK.gov]