Oklahoma leaders are poised to launch drone research and development efforts

Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are poised to quickly move from the military domain to a vast array of commercial applications. For now, however, the industry is restrained by strict Federal Aviation Administration regulations that ban most business use.
by Adam Wilmoth Modified: May 24, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: May 24, 2014


photo - 
James Grimsley, president and CEO of Design Intelligence Incorporated, holds up a quad copter while talking about drone research and development in Oklahoma during a meeting at the Tinker Business and Industrial Park Monday, April 28, 2014. Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman
  PAUL B. SOUTHERLAND - 
PAUL B. SOUTHERLAND
James Grimsley, president and CEO of Design Intelligence Incorporated, holds up a quad copter while talking about drone research and development in Oklahoma during a meeting at the Tinker Business and Industrial Park Monday, April 28, 2014. Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman PAUL B. SOUTHERLAND - PAUL B. SOUTHERLAND

With restrictions expected to soon ease on one of the country’s newest industries, a group of Oklahoma business and state leaders are preparing to take full advantage of what they call the newest land rush.

“We have all these companies lined up, ready to go into the unassigned territory of commercial airspace, and we’re waiting for the starting gun,” said Stephen McKeever, the state’s secretary of science and technology.

Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are poised to quickly move from the military domain to an array of commercial applications. For now, however, the industry is restrained by strict Federal Aviation Administration regulations that ban most business use.

Unmanned aircraft have become increasingly inexpensive and available throughout the country. Remote controlled helicopters with mounted cameras are available for less than $100.

Any 10-year-old who’s grown up on a PlayStation can handle even the most difficult operations.

But what a 10-year-old can do for fun is illegal for almost any commercial application.

FAA regulations allow for business use only when the aircraft is controlled by an FAA-certified pilot. If the aircraft travels out of sight, it must stay in range of ground observers with Class 2 Medical Certification.

“The FAA is treating these like manned aircraft,” said Warren Thomas, managing general partner of the Tinker Business and Industrial Park. “The companies I’ve been in contact with have used a four-pound foam aircraft — something a 12-year-old kid could operate — but it took six people, including two FAA pilots.”

And if the four-pound plastic toy were to crash, the FAA requires the same treatment as if it were a manned aircraft.

Safety, privacy concerns

In recent months, the FAA has sent cease-and-desist notifications and threatened litigation against businesses throughout the country that have tried to use drones in commercial applications.

Earlier this month, the agency said it would investigate an Arkansas TV station that used an unmanned aircraft to shoot video of tornado damage.

The main concerns are safety for the country’s existing air traffic system and concerns over privacy, as many of these aircraft will include cameras or infrared sensors.

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by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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Top: James Grimsley, president and CEO of Design Intelligence Incorporated, holds up an MK4 model drone used in wind tunnel tests while talking during an April 28 meeting at the Tinker Business and Industrial Park.

Above: Warren Thomas, managing partner of Tinker Business and Industrial Park, talks during the meeting about drone research and development in Oklahoma while pointing to a map of Green Valley Farms near Lexington. Photos by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman/

Illustration by Chris Schoelen, The Oklahoman Graphics

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