By Michael McNutt
Nearly 600 jobs could be created in Oklahoma, the first state chosen as a testing site for small unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, in the first three years after the aircraft is allowed to use domestic airspace, state and industry officials said Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to approve regulations for the drones by 2015, and it's possible Oklahoma could gain hundreds more jobs by 2025, according to a study commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Companies are testing drones in restricted air space over Fort Sill near Elgin. The U.S. Homeland Security Department selected the site last year; the program is funded to run through December, said John Appleby, with the federal agency's advanced research projects division.
The robotic aircraft being tested is to be used for purposes such as search-and-rescue efforts or responding to natural disasters such as tornadoes and fires. Tests are conducted at the University Multispectral Laboratories flight center, which is affiliated with Oklahoma State University.
Gov. Mary Fallin said the unmanned aircraft represents one of the fastest-growing segments of the aerospace industry, which already is an important part of Oklahoma's economy.
"We've made wonderful strides in creating an environment which is attractive to this industry and building upon Oklahoma's infrastructure to be a national leader in the advancement of UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology."
Stephen McKeever, who serves on Fallin's Cabinet as secretary of science and technology, said Oklahoma is positioning itself to be a hub for innovation and growth in the unmanned aerial systems field by building strong academic research and development programs.
"This is the new technology with the potential for a huge economic development impact in the whole of the nation," he said.
McKeever said he is aware that some citizens may be leery of the drones over concerns that they could be used for surveillance of law-abiding residents.
"This is a topic that has to be discussed by informed people," he said.
If necessary rules, regulations and policies might have to be developed "to protect the citizens and yet at the same time still allow the development of technology for the public good," McKeever said. "We fully recognize that reasonable people could have reasonable concerns and these must be dealt with that's what our elected officials and government authorities are for."
Fallin said: "We're not interested in spying on anyone. We're going to do everything we can to protect the privacy and security of individuals in our state, and certainly we should in our nation."
Michael Toscano, president and chief executive officer of the unmanned vehicle systems group, said Oklahoma is well-positioned to reap the economic benefits of the expanded use of unmanned aerial systems technology.
"Oklahoma has the infrastructure in place to support the development of UAS technology, as well as several industries -- such as agriculture and the oil and gas industry -- that could one day benefit from the technology," he said. "Moving UAS technology forward can improve our quality of life while creating high-quality American jobs, especially right here in Oklahoma."
His group's study found that Oklahoma is projected to create 593 new jobs in the first three years -- from 2015 to 2017 -- after drones are integrated into U.S. airspace.
This number includes both direct and indirect manufacturing jobs; it's expected police and fire departments, most of which can't afford traditional aircraft, would buy the mostly battery-operated, computer-driven drones which are cheaper and cost less to operate.
It also states that Oklahoma is poised to add hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of additional new jobs by 2025. It's projected there will be 105,685 new jobs nationally by 2025 as a result of the airspace integration, and many of the jobs aren't committed or tied to any particular state.
The study also states agriculture is expected to be the largest market for unmanned aircraft technology by allowing farmers to more efficiently monitor crops and distribute pesticides, which could help improve efficiency among Oklahoma's 86,000 farms. The oil and gas industry also could use the drones to more efficiently survey pipelines and drilling rigs.
The report was developed by Darryl Jenkins, a past professor at George Washington University and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and an aviation industry economist with more than 30 years of experience.