Oklahoma chosen as test site for drones

Small unmanned aircraft systems will be tested to help first responders deal with natural disasters and other emergencies in the restricted air space over Fort Sill near Lawton.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: June 29, 2012
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Oklahoma is the first state to be chosen as a testing site for small unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, to be used to help first responders, state and federal officials announced Thursday.

The robotic aircraft to be tested will be used for purposes such as search-and-rescue efforts or responding to natural disasters such as tornadoes and fires, Gov. Mary Fallin said.

Drones for use by the military or police investigations will not be tested at the Oklahoma site, she said.

“It's important for Oklahoma to be on the cutting edge of that research and technology and development and developing the type of skilled, educated work force that will continue to help the industry grow,” she said.

One of seven

Tests will be conducted in restricted air space over Fort Sill near Lawton, said John Appleby, director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's program for robotic aircraft for public safety. Oklahoma was one of seven states considered for the testing program.

The state's central location was a key factor because companies will be bringing aircraft to be tested and public safety officials from across the country will be coming to observe and participate in the tests, he said.

Plenty of flying days in Oklahoma also were a factor, Appleby said.

Homeland Security is expected to spend about $1.4 million on the program in its first year of operations, Fallin said. The program is expected to last at least three years.

“It places Oklahoma in the top leadership position for unmanned aerials systems research,” she said. “It will reap great benefits once again for our economy.”

Work is expected to begin this fall at the University Multispectral Laboratories flight center, which is affiliated with Oklahoma State University, near Lawton, Fallin said.

The Oklahoma National Guard, which often helps local and state agencies respond to disasters, also will be involved in the program.

“It's important that we have the absolute best tools available to protect life and property,” said Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, the state's adjutant general.