LONDON — The next big thing in aviation may be really small.
With some no bigger than a hummingbird, the hottest things at this week’s Farnborough International Airshow are tiny compared with the titans of the sky, such as the Airbus 380 or the Boeing Dreamliner.
What’s got aviation geeks salivating at Farnborough, this year’s biggest aviation jamboree that features participants from 40 countries, are the commercial possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles — drones to most of us.
Drones are more commonly known for their use in conflict areas. This week Hamas launched for the first time an unmanned drone into Israeli airspace that was shot down.
But drones, which can weigh less than an ounce, have potential commercial applications that are vast. The industry, military and nonmilitary, is growing and could, according to some, see investments of nearly $90 billion over the next 10 years.
Experts say they can be adapted to fly over fields to determine when crops need watering, fly into clouds in hopes of offering more precise predictions on twisters, track endangered rhinos, spot wildfires and search vast stretches of land for missing children.
A lot of the research has been in big, flat places such as the Plains States, where a broad expanse of land combines with universities near military bases to make research possible.
Where California had Silicon Valley to drive its high-tech industries, America’s central belt from North Dakota to Texas could become a new research and commercial center for the aviation industry.
“This is open country for entrepreneurs,” said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and technology. “There will be a Steve Jobs.”
But things are on hold for the American makers of unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs, as they await rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Now you can legally fly drones for “recreational purposes,” as long as you comply with basic guidelines.
Commercial operations are only allowed with special authorization, a cumbersome process that the government intends to streamline. Once they do, McKeever said the situation will be akin to the land rush that sent land-hungry settlers scurrying to Oklahoma’s territory in 1889.
The FAA is developing regulations to permit the widespread commercial use of drones while protecting privacy and preventing interference with larger aircraft. The FAA in December selected six test sites where research will be conducted.
North Dakota is one of them, and Brian Opp, manager of aerospace business development for the North Dakota Department of Commerce, is promoting the weather. If your drone can work in a freezing North Dakota winter or its scorching summer, it will work anywhere.