Paris Air Show

Oklahoma Seeks Status As U.S. Leader In Unmanned Aircraft

 - June 17, 2013, 5:55 AM
Oklahoma Army National Guard soldiers prepare a Textron AAI Corporation RQ-7B Shadow for launch from a pneumatic catapult at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

The state of Oklahoma believes that it has the resources to be among the leading U.S. states in commercializing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). But this spring, the state’s political leaders were disappointed by the findings of a UAS economic impact study that ranked California, Washington, Texas, Florida and Arizona as the top five states expected to see the most in terms of immediate job growth and revenue when UAS are integrated into the National Airspace System. In fact, Oklahoma ranked 30th out of the 50 states.

That study, released in March by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), is only a “snapshot” based on current indicators of the U.S. aerospace industry; as such, it favors states with large existing manufacturing bases, argues Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma secretary of science and technology. The study authors acknowledge this point. “It is important to note that the projections contained in this report are based on the current airspace activity and infrastructure in a given state,” they wrote. “As a result, states with an already thriving aerospace industry are projected to reap the most economic gains. However, a variety of factors–state laws, tax incentives, regulations, the establishment of test sites and the adoption of UAS technology by end users–will ultimately determine where jobs flow.”

Oklahoma’s aspiration to become the “fly to” state for UAS research, development, testing, simulation and manufacturing is backed by a coalition of the state’s political, academic, business and military leadership, starting with Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican who has been out front in promoting the industry. A spring 2012 report by the governor’s UAS council found that Oklahoma “occupies a very favorable position in the nascent UAS industry,” particularly because of access to restricted military airspace where unmanned aircraft can be flown and evaluated, academic resources and a base of at least 15 companies involved in UAS to build upon.

“We are right in this space,” McKeever told the Oklahoma UAS summit in Norman in late March. “Our existing industries would really benefit from the development of UAS.”

Fallin and McKeever led a delegation of Oklahoma aerospace executives and state officials to last year’s Farnborough International Airshow in the UK, and plans call for them to attend this year’s Paris Air Show as well. “We’re targeting European and other global aerospace commercial and military companies because our industry assets and the incentives we offer make Oklahoma an extremely competitive investment destination,” Fallin has stated.

The state has some impressive credentials in unmanned aircraft R&D and testing. Oklahoma State University (OSU) at Stillwater lays claims to being the nation’s first institution of higher learning offering master’s and doctoral degrees with UAS options, and OSU students own several records for building and flying unmanned aircraft. Oklahoma University (OU) is recognized as a leader in radar and weather research using unmanned aircraft, which can be applied toward “sense-and-avoid” solutions for UAS.

The Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, a major Air Force Materiel Command depot located at Tinker Air Force Base, has been assigned the lead role in maintenance, repair and overhaul of MQ-9 Reaper turboprop engines and eventually airframes returning from Afghanistan. A former Strategic Air Command base managed by the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority near Burns Flat, west of Oklahoma City, has struggled to make it as a commercial spaceport but could be repurposed for UAS. The Army National Guard flies RQ-7 Shadow and RQ-11 Raven UAS in restricted airspace at Fort Sill. Another military installation, Camp Gruber, has an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly small UAS. The Muldrow Army National Guard heliport at Lexington recently obtained an FAA certificate of authorization to fly the Shadow.

In June 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chose the Oklahoma Training Center-Unmanned Systems (OTC-US) facility near Elgin as the test site for its Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (Raps) program. Under Raps, the DHS is conducting operational tests and generating reports on the performance of small UAS for law enforcement, disaster response and firefighting applications. The reports will be made available to public safety agencies that are considering using unmanned aircraft in their operations.

The OTC-US is a unit of University Multispectral Laboratories, a nonprofit research institution operated for OSU by a private company, Anchor Dynamics. Through an agreement with Fort Sill, it has access to 200 square miles of restricted airspace from the surface to 40,000feet. The OTC-US facility is one of several locations, including Camp Gruber, Muldrow heliport and the aspiring spaceport at Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark, that Oklahoma intends to weave together into a UAS test-site network with interconnecting air “corridors” for unmanned aircraft.

The test-site network is a resource Oklahoma can offer for what is considered the next prize in UAS commercialization: designation by the FAA as a UAS test range. The agency is required by both the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation and the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to establish a UAS test program at six ranges. The competition is intense, with more than 30 states vying for the federal designation. The FAA is expected to announce its choice of ranges by the end of this year.

“Fort Sill range will be the original anchor because we’re already doing testing there,” retired brigadier general Dave Wagie, director of aerospace and defense economic development with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, told AIN. “Our intention is to use multiple ranges as part of our state test site [proposal]. We certainly will explain that we have facilities and resources throughout the state. We feel we can present a comprehensive package for testing in the state.”

Oklahoma’s leaders are determined to create a UAS test-site network with or without the coveted FAA range designation. “To compete nationally, and to ensure longevity and sustainability, the state should declare the establishment of a state test site network and devise a suitable business, operational and management plan for its continued operation,” the governor’s UAS council advised. “In this way, Oklahoma will become a de facto leader in the integration of UAS into the NAS, even without designation as such from the FAA.”