Article by Miriam McNabb from DroneLife
The Top 3 Drone Friendly States May Surprise You
What are the top drone friendly states for new drone industry? While it’s clear that some states have been focused on drone regulation to keep the industry out of their skies, others have been out in front of the curve, actively putting programs in place to attract new drone business. With innovative financial incentives, some of the best educational resources in the country, testing facilities for new technologies, and state governments that are deliberately creating a flexible framework to support innovation, these three states stand out as the among the very best drone friendly states today.
Listed alphabetically – the only fair thing to do, as all three of the states profiled offer unique programs to support the industry – our picks as the top states for the drone industry are: New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
Third on our list of drone friendly states is Oklahoma. DRONELIFE spoke with Dr. Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology, and Dr. Jamey Jacob, Director Unmanned Research Institute at Oklahoma State University (OSU.)
With the tag line “The State of Success, The State of Advantages,” Oklahoma is clearly putting its money on the table for the drone industry. Its list of financial programs is impressive: major tax benefits both corporate and personal, pooled finance incentive for investment in facilities, machinery and equipment, an aerospace engineer workforce tax credit, a quality jobs 10-year cash incentive, and sales tax refunds for manufacturers and aerospace maintenance and repair. Add that to Oklahoma’s low cost of living and you might have a perfect place for a new entrepreneur to get started. “We’re attracting some of the best engineers…there are some very, very attractive packages for this industry,” says Dr. McKeever.
It isn’t only finances that make Oklahoma attractive. With over 125,000 people already employed in the aerospace industry, Oklahoma lawmakers saw the advantages of the drone industry early. The state’s top three industries are energy (wind, oil and gas), agriculture, and aerospace: “These are the top three industries impacted by the drone industry… Oklahoma made a strategic decision to promote itself as a drone state,” says McKeever.
Kraettli L. Epperson, founder of Vigilant Aerospace Systems, agrees. “I have deep roots in Oklahoma – Oklahoma has a long history of aviation pioneers. There’s a lot of engineering talents.” Epperson says that Oklahoma was instrumental in getting his drone business started. Vigilant is a provider of sophisticated sense-and-avoid, flight safety and flight de-conflicting technologies to help integrate drones into the NAS. The company has a unique offering: they use existing FAA systems and protocols. Epperson says that Oklahoma’s WBT Open Innovation Forum was where he met the NASA scientists who developed the technology that they use. In addition, Epperson participates in a UAS Cluster Initiative to encourage early stage companies and the governor’s UAS Council, which Dr. McKeever chairs. “You couldn’t ask for more support and a better channel to local government,” he says.
Oklahoma has an independently run UAS flight center, which pre-dates the FAA Test site program and is not tied to some of the same paperwork issues that other FAA sites experience. OSU’s UML has had a UAS flight center for about 5 years – they’ve done over 1,000 flights evaluating drone operations; the aerospace industry benefits enormously from this access. Jacob says that the independent flight center supports innovation that can’t be tested easily elsewhere: “This gives us a lot of leeway for some programs,” he comments.
The infrastructure that exists for the aerospace industry easily accommodates the drone industry, and the industries most likely to benefit from drone technology are right there. But one of Oklahoma’s biggest assets is their strong network of educational and research facilities.
In practical terms, Dr. Jacob says, the research and testing facilities that serve the existing aerospace industry provide a huge benefit for the drone industry. “Our primary bread and butter is fabrication of vehicles… a hands on design – build – fly experience,” he explains. “We’ve been doing that for 25 years…. That has given us the capability to rapidly design drones – sometimes going from a clean sheet of paper to a complete prototype flight test within six months.”
With a drone flight station located near OSU campus, enjoying a blanket COA, “Groups can be in the lab in the morning and flying out in the field within a half hour,” says Jacob.
The educational facilities are not limited to aerospace and drones. The Noble Research Foundation, the largest non-profit organization for agricultural research, is developing a fleet of agricultural drones. And as one of the top places for weather research, Oklahoma recently got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop systems to routinely use drones for forecasting.
Oklahoma’s educational system is investing in future aviation engineers, too. Dr. Jacob’s team recently worked on a design, build, and fly contest for high school and college students – a “First Robotics for Aeronautics.” Jacobs enthused about the talent he and his team saw out in the field: “We had high school students using advanced software to redesign their aircraft… it was really impressive.”
With top-down support of the drone industry, an existing aerospace infrastructure, and some great educational institutions, Secretary McKeever hopes that new businesses will take advantage of everything Oklahoma has to offer. “We are a drone friendly state – we see the value of this industry, we recognize that its growing rapidly, and we have the education, training, and physical facilities right here at our fingertips…. We’re a great place to be.”