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States Position Themselves to Compete in Domestic Drone Industry

June 12, 2013

While public debate rages over the role of surveillance in our society, one particularly infamous government surveillance technology, drones, is being prepared for private sector deployment in the U.S. Drone-related technologies are predicted to revolutionize commerce in the U.S., with industry projections valuing their initial deployment as an $82 billion boost to the national economy. In preparation for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rollout of drone-use regulations in 2015, entrepreneurs, multinational corporations and state governments are scrambling to be in a competitive position to benefit.

While drones have been scrutinized in the press for their extensive use in overseas counter-terrorism operations, entrepreneurs at universities and startups across the country are experimenting with hundreds of potential civilian uses for the technology. State-by-state projections for the economic impacts of drone technology are widespread and robust. California is expected to win big because of its drone manufacturing base while Midwestern states like Kansas are expected to capitalize from the industry's agricultural applications.

One of the key selling points for the rapid deployment of drone technology is affordability. Individual drones can cost the fraction of the price of a new car and are simple enough in design to be routinely built by hobbyists. A radio-controlled, fixed-wing UAV can be purchased for a few thousand dollars. Drone helicopters can be purchased for as low as $300.

The federal government has deployed drone technology for non-military purposes. NASA has conducted hurricane and climate studies with unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology acquired from the Air Force. As noted in a recent article in Nature, the low price of drone technology has encouraged many scientific groups to experiment with unmanned aerial vehicles. Already, drones offer an efficient way of gathering scientific data and have led to important advances in wildlife biology, polar research, and volcano studies. The World Wildlife Foundation is using drones overseas to detect poachers on game reserves.

U.S. universities have been active in positioning themselves to take advantage of the nascent drone industry. Out of the 81 public entities that have obtained a federal license for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) testing, over one-third are universities. As referenced in a Time Magazine article, for over five years the University of North Dakota has offered a degree program in Unmanned Aerial Systems that offers training on hardware, software, and drone aviation. The University of Pennsylvania has a research center dedicated to developing robot swarm technology, considered one of the key technologies that will guide commercial drone deployment. Community colleges also are getting in on the action. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, OH, is in close proximity to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and offers a three-semester technical certificate in mission planning, data management, and drone maintenance.

Current FAA regulations make it laborious and complex for groups to obtain rights to fly drones in U.S. airspace. This has serious implications for entrepreneurs, corporations, and university research programs that want to test new applications for drone technology. When the University of Colorado-Boulder wanted to use a UAV to chase storms across the state, the school had to obtain 59 separate permissions from the FAA before conducting their tests. Each sanctioned drone flight also requires a certified pilot. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed in 2012, requires the Department of Transportation to produce a plan by late 2015 that ensures the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system. In the meantime, industry-university consortiums have formed to compete for federal contracts to support FAA drone testing, including a partnership between several Kansas universities and a host of in-state businesses.

Already, police departments across the country are seeking permission to use the technology for search-and-rescue operations, sometimes working in partnership with local universities such as Mississippi State University and the Starkville policy department. Weapons contractors are quitting their day jobs to launch civilian startups funded by large corporate investors like Google Ventures, who recently invested $10.5 million in a project hosted in Newport Beach, CA. As noted in a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, industry experts are predicting that the biggest winners in the burgeoning drone industry will come from companies that produce the apps instead of the hardware itself. Universities across the country are hosting teams of students to experiment with UAVs and develop new applications for the technology. Business opportunities for startups will depend heavily on how society addresses the safety and surveillance concerns posed by the technology.

California, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvaniaaerospace, federal agency, higher ed