Oklahoma Sees Promise in Unmanned Aircraft

Oklahoma is still keeping pace with – if not soaring past – other regions trying to carve a niche in the unmanned aerial systems and drone industry despite missing out on a Federal Aviation Administration test site designation, Jamey Jacob said.

“Where our strength is really coming from is in our public-private partnerships,” said Jacob, a professor of aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University. “We’re seeing a lot of positive interaction between state government, academic institutions and a growing local industry under very proactive initiatives on a steady pace.”

Oklahoma State University was the first four-year university to offer graduate-level degrees specific to UAS engineering, according to the Aerospace Manufacturing & Design industry magazine. That academic push is already paying off, said Jacob, who has worked on projects ranging from Mars exploration to terrestrial tornado study. Some of his students were recently recognized by the Department of Homeland Security in a nationwide small UAS competition.

But at the end of 2014, Oklahoma received news that the state had not been chosen as a UAS test site, one of only a few areas where the FAA is legally allowing drone flight as regulations are being developed. A draft of those rules is expected by the end of this year, followed by another year’s worth of public input and editing. Oklahoma had been considered a strong contender for the test site designation, which is indirectly worth billions of dollars in economic development.

“Unfortunately we really didn’t have any financial backing from the state,” Jacob said. “But that’s OK. It was a useful process and we’ve been able to use the experience to bring us all to the table, and now we’re in a better position to compete for the FAA’s identification as a UAS Center of Excellence. That would allow us to bring direct federal funding to the state rather than the unfunded test site designation.”

Regardless, the state’s fledgling UAS industry has been taking off at key sites in Oklahoma, particularly near Tinker Air Force Base, said Daniel Will, executive director of Cowboy Technologies, Oklahoma State University’s entrepreneurial management and marketing unit. He cited the foundation this year of the Unmanned Systems Innovation Center at the Tinker Business and Industrial Park near Oklahoma City, for example, which is already attracting UAS-related interests to work in synergy with the aeronautics companies around the base.

“UAS will definitely be a center point of our commercialization efforts at Cowboy Technologies,” Will said. “We will be well-placed in this rapidly expanding market because we have several unique advantages from the creative minds at OSU in how to approach the UAS sector head-on. You will see real product solutions come out of this area to address needs even before they come up.”

As of the beginning of October, the FAA reported processing more than 50 requests from applicants seeking to operate drones by exemption under a provision of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The first exemptions were sought by photo and video production. Research and development on UAS technology in Oklahoma is expected to prompt more exemptions, officials said.

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