Monday, June 6, 2011
OKLAHOMA CITY – One of Oklahoma’s fastest-emerging industries, unmanned aerial systems, continues its trajectory with new government partnerships and a potential new airspace and corridor for testing.
Meanwhile, the human support on the ground is solidifying, with an advisory council to be appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin, and a new state chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Dr. Stephen McKeever, executive director of the University Multispectral Laboratories, will head the council, which will include 10 to 15 people from the public and private sectors. He said Oklahoma’s assets for unmanned aerial vehicles continue to grow in parallel to a resurgence of aerospace interest among the next generation.
One of the newest developments is an agreement in which Oklahoma entities are researching and developing unmanned aerial vehicles that would test aircraft electronic landing systems for the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force, a task that is now done with more expensive-to-operate manned aircraft. The collaboration includes the UML, Oklahoma State University, the FAA and the Air Force.
“Their systems need to be tested every year, and if they can test them with unmanned vehicles, it will reduce costs terrifically,” McKeever said.
Oklahoma also continues its work expanding the airspace in which unmanned aerial vehicles can fly. Right now, unmanned aerial vehicles cannot be flown above a certain level without specific approval from the FAA. The FAA has been mandated to come up with a strategy by 2015 for opening up the national airspace to UAVs, but until then, Oklahoma is positioning itself to attract UAV testing, McKeever said. A UAV flight test and demonstration center has been established in Lawton that allows people to fly UAVs within the restricted airspace of Fort Sill, eliminating the need for approval from the FAA.
But another such opportunity is on the horizon. McKeever said they are working with the FAA for approval to operate a particular UAV at the Clinton-Sherman air base near Burns Flat. Another step in the works is to establish a UAV air corridor between the Clinton-Sherman air base and Fort Sill.
“Then you could test systems by taking off from one airport and landing at another one,” he said.
Another promising new partnership is with the Oklahoma National Guard, which is interested in developing UAVs for emergency response activities, McKeever said.
The new state chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International will boost Oklahoma’s UAV partners into the global spotlight, said James Grimsley, president and CEO of Design Intelligence Inc., which develops micro air vehicles. Grimsley also will head the AUVSI.
Previously, there was a grass-roots, volunteer alliance of UAV participants, Grimsley said, but the state needed something more organized and with heightened visibility. Oklahoma’s 2009 aerospace study recommended membership in AUVSI, he said, and they began working toward that goal.
“This is putting us on the international map for UAS,” Grimsley said. “We’re starting to get a lot of attention. AUVSI is like a lot of other professional industry groups that support education and lobby on behalf of the industry. It’s our eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.”
So far, Oklahoma’s UAV contracts and partnerships mostly have been with the government, but a potentially large commercial sector looms. That will become more apparent when the FAA opens the national airspace to UAVs, Grimsley said. Possible commercial applications range from crop spraying to pipeline inspections to surveillance.
“We expect a lot of opportunities will emerge, but we’re still in the dream stage right now,” he said. “But it’s typically the things that you don’t know or think about yet that turn into major opportunities for industries. Within five to 10 years, it’s my personal expectation that we’ll see more than the $94 billion industry that is predicted.”
Careers in the UAV industry are attracting students and young engineers in a way that the shuttle program did years ago, Grimsley said. OSU also recently added a UAV option to its master’s and doctorate programs.
“Aerospace stagnated for a while – it became boring to students because there weren’t that many opportunities in it,” he said. “But this whole new field of UAVs is exciting because it’s rich in research. We’re having to tackle problems that we’ve never tackled before. It’s the basic science as well as a lot of applied science. It also has the ‘neat factor’ for kids. There’s a lot of interest at the high school level that’s starting to feed into the university level. As this industry is growing, we’re seeing people being trained who will be available as the industry grows and mature.”
UAVs are at the top of the list next year for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said Dave Wagie, director of aerospace economic development. The state will have a significant presence at the upcoming AUVSI North American trade show in Washington, D.C.
“We have a whole lot of reasons why, if we continue to bring all our assets together, we can grow as a state industry, not just as individual companies,” Wagie said.
By April Wilkerson, Journal Record