?Make jobs, not drones??it?s a slogan that has appeared on Occupy signs across the country. But what if drones created jobs? The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, enacted on February 14, requires the FAA to select six states as test sites for research that will soon allow UAVs?commonly referred to as drones?to operate alongside commercial aircraft in the national airspace (NAS).
?UAVs are in many ways going to be for our decade what the space program was in the ?60s,?John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA
The public tends to react negatively to the term ?drone? because of its association with secretive defense projects, unauthorized surveillance and targeted attacks overseas, but states who have experienced significant job loss in recent years?Ohio lost more than 369,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry over the last decade?could benefit from the number of jobs created by a local UAV manufacturing infrastructure.
So far, about 40 states are expected to apply for the test site status that should attract a thriving community of researchers, manufacturers, suppliers and educators to invest in their local economies.
One national study estimates the unmanned aircraft industry will create 23,000 jobs over the next 15 years and the number of defense contracts attracted by an UAV cluster would mean accelerated opportunities for growth.
Taking back manufacturing
Currently, there is no aviation authority in the world that allows drones 24-hour access to its country?s friendly airspace. It seems the U.S. could be the first, with legislation pushing for fewer restrictions on drone operation and integration of civil unmanned aircraft into the NAS by ?no later than September, 30, 2015.?
Early integration and the opening of a commercial market for drones should ramp up the establishment of a UAV manufacturing infrastructure in the U.S. that will stand out among its global competitors.
UAV expenditures are expected to reach over $84 billion in the next ten years, with U.S. manufacturers poised to supply foreign markets as restrictions on drone exportation gradually lift and more commercial applications being discovered every day.
U.S.-based marketing firm Teal Group predicts that the U.S. will account for 62 percent of the worldwide RDT&E spending on UAV technology over the next decade, and 55 percent of procurements.
Despite public concern over privacy, the technology is not going away. Countries around the globe are already engaged in an arms race centered on drones. Domestically, the FAA has signed off on about 300 certificates of authorization for government agencies, universities and private companies to operate drones in the U.S. already and projects that 30,000 drones, from ?insect? models to those the size of commercial aircraft, will be operating in U.S. airspace by 2020.
?UAVs are in many ways going to be for our decade what the space program was in the ?60s,? John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, told NPR.
Test site selection
According to the FAA, the six test site programs should aim to fulfill the following research requirements, however, research strategies may well vary from site to site:
Between March and May of this year, the FAA collected public input on how best to designate the six test sites. The agency has been reviewing that data as they create the criteria to be considered throughout the proposal submission process.
The FAA?s invitation to submit proposals is scheduled to go public within the next month, with NASA and the Department of Defense acting as consulting bodies throughout the selection process. According to the agency, elections will be made in late 2012 and the first site should be operational by 2013.
Specific standards for the sites have yet to be established, but each state?s five-year contract will involve authorization (not funding) for flight research, development and data analysis.
Despite the lack of official Defense and FAA funding for the sites, there is plenty of incentive for private companies and public institutions to aggressively lobby for the FAA designation. The aerospace industry (largely due to government purchases of UAVs) continued to experience growth while traditional juggernauts such as the U.S. automotive industry struggled with sales. Fittingly, AUVSI, the industry?s trade organization, doubled its own lobbying budget this year.
Little is known about what it might take to win test-site status except that the FAA will be looking for ?geographic and climatic diversity? and ?the location of ground infrastructure and research needs.?
Who?s in the running
There are 64 drone bases in the U.S. currently, with several concentrated in California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and New York. Some bases are utilized for drone pilot training; others serve as remote cockpits for robotic aircraft overseas or drone data analysis depots. These states are likely candidates for test site designation, with coastlines and varied geographies in addition to established relationships with NASA and the DoD.
Prior to even the FAA?s invitation for jurisdictions to apply, state legislators have gathered resources and launched committees in an effort to earn one of the FAA?s proverbial golden tickets.
Ohio has launched the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative, aimed at developing an ?enduring friendship? with the FAA and UAV community. The Dayton Development Coalition, a regional business group, spent $60,000 to tout the site’s proximity to research labs at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The base experienced an industrial jump-start last year when the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a major intelligence, military, aerospace, engineering and systems contractor, moved a total of 215 jobs to the area from Virginia.
Ohio?s defunct Wilmington Air Park is similarly eager to embrace the UAV technology. NPR visited the property, which hosts a mere 150 flights a year since Airbus supplier, DHL, and the 9,000 people it employed, left town. With the Air Force already testing aircraft at Wright-Patterson, the all but abandoned 1900-acre air park is primed for hosting more UAV test flights.
In New York, NUAIR is the newly formed not-for-profit that Centerstate CEO has assembled to lobby for test-site selection. The full name stands for Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Regional Alliance, and the team includes familiar local players in the radar and electronic sensing fields ? Saab Sensis, SRC, Anaren and Lockheed Martin. It also includes Calspan Corporation in Buffalo, and about a dozen colleges and universities, including the University of Buffalo, RIT, Syracuse University, SUNY colleges of Morrisville, Oswego and Binghamton, Cayuga, Onondaga and Jefferson community colleges, as well as Dowling College, on Long Island, which has a school of aviation.
Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota says his state is also doing everything it can to have the city of Grand Forks and its air force base selected as a pilot site. ?The pilot sites represent a huge opportunity for the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the university and the high-tech businesses that have been clustering in the area to support UAV operations,? he says.
If, as the Air Line Pilots Association suggests should be the case, all drone operators are required to have the same amount of training as pilots, the growth of the drone market will create a secondary industry, offering training, advice and support to corporations who want to adopt UAVs for commercial use.
As we?ve seen with robot integrators, UAV pilots could account for thousands of those jobs in demand as the industry expands. And educating those pilots is a lucrative industry in itself. In 2011, the United States Air Force trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
Those states, like North Dakota, that already boast institutions offering a four-year degree in UAV operations or special certification programs should expect to benefit from the industry?s growth in any case, but particularly if that state also hosts a UAV cluster. A list of North American training schools can be viewed here.
The rush to build Ohio?s image as a center of drone production and testing has already led a local community college to offer certificate programs in the technical maintenance and piloting of drones. The college created the first non-military UAS simulation center for training pilots of unmanned aircraft and it has plans to make the first National Center for UAS Training and Certification.
Effect on citizen life
The citizens of the states chosen for test sites can expect, in some regard, to be viewed as a microcosm of the nation?s future with UAVs. Although swarms of drones will not darken the skies over Ohio just yet, the FAA?s swift integration efforts understandably raises alarms about public privacy in particular.
Catherine Crump of the ACLU is speaking out against ?policy by procurement? for drones. That term refers to the all-too-common practice of vendors establishing the approved uses for new technology, often even before the public knows the technology exists (think GPS tracking in cell phones).
“Military vendors are trying to craft the regulations around their products,” said Patrick Egan, a small-business consultant in the industry. “Money talks.”
That public debate will continue as drones get closer to flying in friendly skies.
Generating commercial applications
In the meantime, the FAA is technically designed to focus on securing public safety, not privacy. And, to that end, the public can expect to watch drone technology drive advancements in security and anti-collision software.
Already several advanced ?sense and avoid? systems have been announced, including the U.S. Army?s Ground-Based Sense and Avoid system (GBSAA) which is in its early testing phase and the Fraunhofer Institute?s new anti-collision chip technology. Two days ago, ADTI announced a joint venture with Austria-based Aerospy to commercialize the first certified sense and avoid technology for UAVs in civilian airspace.
More such collaborations and technology ?races? can be anticipated as research at the six test sites generates strange bedfellows as well as tons of data for commercial development.
Phillip Finnegan, Teal Group?s director of corporate analysis, says his company?s study has noticed the ?widely varying approaches being taken by these key [UAV] companies, ranging from outright acquisitions to teaming arrangements and internal development of new UAV systems? in the race to capitalize on the growing market.
Indeed, the UAV community has been preparing itself for commercial acceptance for sometime. While military drones have been in the skies over Afghanistan, UAV hobbyists have been developing new technologies on the ground. The problem is, many manufacturers accustomed to dealing with the DoD don?t know how to market commercial applications to an increasingly suspicious public.
While AUVSI hires a media company to produce positive messaging on drones for the general public, some of the technologies that are being developed, in terms of robotics advancements, are exhibiting endless possibilities for adoption into industries the public has approved commercial robots for, such as the medical field.
For example, facial recognition software that might allow the police to locate a criminal in a crowd from miles above ground can be adapted to a personal robot that can recognize its owner?s face; Security software that prevents drone hijacking can also protect your personal computer; and the anti-collision technology being developed in compliance with the FAA?s NextGen initiative will undoubtedly make even our manned commercial air travel more safe.
As test sites are chosen and UAV tech clusters take shape around them, the U.S. will see a fundamental reshaping of the industrial environment that, according to AUVSI, could give the civil market a shot at eclipsing the defense market in terms of investment and revenue. Not to mention the fact that adoption of UAVs into commercial airspace marks another accelerated movement towards the adoption of robotics into everyday life.
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