The Norman Transcript

December 16, 2013

Okla. seeking drone payload

By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press

STILLWATER — Whether it’s in the skies above Oklahoma State University or the Fort Sill Army Post in the southwest part of the state, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, are becoming more commonplace over Oklahoma as the state positions itself to become a hotbed for this booming sector of the aerospace industry.

Eighteen Oklahoma-based companies already are actively engaged in the industry, OSU has an established graduate program in unmanned aerial systems, and the state is competing with about two dozen others to become one of six federally designated test sites for the drone industry.

“My job as governor is to help aerospace and defense continue to thrive in Oklahoma,” Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement. “Unmanned Aerial Systems are a key component to future growth and job creation in these industries.”

But with state government pushing to fill the Oklahoma skies with a wide variety of these buzzing vehicles, some civil rights activists are pushing for restrictions on how drones can be used, especially by local law enforcement conducting surveillance.

“Our biggest concern is the use of drones for suspicionless surveillance of Oklahomans,” said Ryan Kiesel, the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Our top priority is to ensure that the government, before they use drones for surveillance purposes, have probable cause.”

A bill that would prohibit putting weapons on drones and limit their use for surveillance on citizens without a warrant passed a House committee last year, but was temporarily shelved at Fallin’s request to protect the state’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration to become a designated drone test site. A decision on those six sites is expected to be announced at the end of the month, and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, said he intends to push the measure again next year.

Wesselhoft, R-Moore, said he supports the UAS industry and wants it to thrive in Oklahoma, but he also thinks Oklahoma should ensure proper safeguards as the technology continues to grow.

“This stuff is going to be so inexpensive in the next few years that everyone is going to be able to get one. With that increase in technology comes responsibility,” Wesselhoft said.

Oklahoma’s application to become a test site boasts 300 flying days a year, a dedicated 201-acre park with a 2,500-foot runway adjacent to Fort Sill, and available air space that stretches about 90 miles from Fort Sill to the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base.

Commonly associated with the military, the commercial applications for drone technology are tremendous and that’s one of the reasons the industry is booming. The oil and gas industry can use them to monitor pipelines, farmers can dust crops or locate livestock with drones, and public safety officials can use them to monitor damage in the wake of a natural disaster.

Amazon made a splash earlier this month by announcing an effort that might someday deliver packages by drone, though the company acknowledged practical use is years away.

Jamey Jacob, a professor of aerospace engineering at OSU who helps oversee the UAS program, said that while the retail giant’s announcement was more about publicity, he said he thinks such technology will be available, although it could be about ten years away.

“That being said, there will come a time in the not too distant future when inexpensive, highly capable bee-sized systems will be available for use by the general public,” Jacob said.

At an indoor flight facility at OSU, 31-year-old Ph.D. student Ben Loh used a remote control to fly a spherical unmanned vehicle around the room. Loh can land the sphere on the ground, move it around, and then make it lift off remotely.

“I started in astrophysics to begin with, and then my interest became stronger,” said Loh, a native of Malaysia who already has secured four patents and a job with an Oklahoma City-based aviation company. “This is what I really love to do.”

A recent study by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce shows the direct impact of FAA’s selection of Oklahoma as a test site would be 2,000 jobs, $200 million in increased economic activity and $20 million in state tax revenue.

“For a small state like Oklahoma, this is significant,” McKeever said.

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