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States jockey to lure UAV industry

Aug. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
A giant, blue-faced, inflatable Yeti — property of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development — greets visitors to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual conference on Wednesday.
A giant, blue-faced, inflatable Yeti — property of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development — greets visitors to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual conference on Wednesday. (Staff)
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WASHINGTON — At this week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) annual conference, the show floor was packed with UAV models, video presentations and the ubiquitous free pens.

But even among the noise and clutter of a trade show, the giant, blue-faced, inflatable Yeti stood out.

He was the property of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and his goal was to remind passersby that the Beehive State is open for business when it comes to unmanned systems.

While some states are fighting to keep unmanned systems out of their airspace — one Colorado town recently proposed legislation to offer hunting licenses for drones — others are betting they can lure industry to their region using tax breaks and other incentives. And many of those states were represented at AUVSI, with booths that rival those of large corporations.

Among states with a presence at the show: Utah, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, Florida and Wyoming. The biggest prize at the table is one of six slots in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program creating test zones for unmanned vehicles.

The FAA is expected to name its choices in December, and those selected stand to win big with an industry that continues to grow.

“UAVs are the forefront of the aerospace industry at this point,” said Marshall Wright, director of business development with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in Utah. “The kinds of systems that are going to lead the technology of aerospace for many, many years.”

He points to over 50 companies that already have offices in Utah as proof the state has the technical and intellectual base to become a hub for the UAV industry.

Several rows over from the Utah booth sat a large booth with an ad declaring that “Oklahoma Is: Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

“Oklahoma has a great interest in this business, and the reason is really quite obvious,” Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary for science and technology, said. “If you look at the major industries in Oklahoma, you see oil and gas, aerospace, agriculture, defense and transportation. And these are all area that are going to benefit from the development of the UAS industry.”

If selected as one of the FAA test sites, McKeever says a conservative analysis done by Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce shows a potential for 2,000 new jobs, $200 million in annual income and $20 million in annual taxes.

North Dakota has taken the concept of a UAV center to its logical conclusion, creating the Grand Sky UAV business hub in Grand Forks County. The site will feature up to 1.2 million square feet of space and will be located right by Grand Forks Air Force Base. Northrop Grumman has already signed on as an anchor tenant at the location.

The state has also created the Northern Plains Unmanned System Authority, an entity headed by North Dakota Air National Guard Col. Robert Becklund.

Becklund points out that the Guard in his home state was an early adaptor of unmanned systems, and that North Dakota is home to pilots who fly the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and Block 4 Global Hawk UAVs for the Air Force. The state drew on that experience when putting together its FAA bid.

“They have tens of thousands of hours of flying time, so to exclude them would be irresponsible,” he said.

Like Becklund, Wright and McKeever agreed the unmanned experience of their local guard units helped them when making their case to the FAA.

“The state guard and the AG [adjutant general] are very close partners with us,” McKeever said. “The proposal that we have put into the FAA includes the state guard as a very important partner, and they helped us in the writing of the proposal to the FAA.”

But that doesn’t mean states are looking to militarize the skies. Representatives from the states were quick to point out that unmanned systems could be most useful in ways that would benefit their citizens.

“One of the things we want to dispel is we’re not using the military systems,” Wright said. While drawing on that knowledge base, these systems will instead be used for fighting fires, launching search-and-rescue operations, or assisting with agriculture.

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