Since 2010, 283 tornadoes have touched down in Oklahoma, destroying homes and businesses and even taking lives. But in recent years, researchers trying to unlock the mystery behind tornadoes have used a new tool — unmanned aircraft systems or UAS. Equipped with high-tech sensors and able to fly into skies too dangerous for manned flight, this technology is delivering researchers a unique look at the storms, and could lead to better forecasting and ultimately save lives.
Tornado research is just one of the many areas that will benefit from rapidly developing UAS technology. Another is Oklahoma's economy.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is set to release a report on the economic impact and job creation potential of integrating UAS into the national airspace. The report finds that in just the first three years following integration, Oklahoma will see nearly 600 new jobs and an economic impact of $57 million — and that's just in the civil and commercial market. This immediate infusion of jobs is a direct result of Gov. Mary Fallin's efforts to support an innovative technology and promote Oklahoma's thriving aerospace industry.
Meanwhile, in the longer term, conditions in Oklahoma are ripe for the state to add hundreds if not thousands of jobs. By 2025, our study found, approximately 100,000 UAS-related jobs will be created nationally. Future events, such as the establishment of test sites and the wide-scale adoption of UAS in key industries, will ultimately determine where these jobs land.
Oklahoma is well-positioned for success. Some of the industries ready to benefit from UAS are those that are the backbone of Oklahoma's economy. For example, our study finds incredible potential for UAS in agriculture. UAS will allow farmers to monitor the health of their crops, detect for drought conditions, or more efficiently distribute pesticides. Another big winner could be the oil and gas industry, which last year pumped $61 billion into Oklahoma's economy. UAS could provide a cheaper and more efficient alternative than manned aircraft to monitor pipelines and drilling rigs.
Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma are national leaders in UAS-related research and development. But before this potential is realized, there are still hurdles to clear. The Federal Aviation Administration has already delayed by several months the process for selecting six UAS test sites for which Oklahoma wants to compete.
In order for the economic benefits of UAS to be realized, the FAA must with no further delay begin the test site selection process and adhere to the overall integration timeline that Congress has estab-lished.
Fortunately, Oklahoma is represented in Congress by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, champions for unmanned systems technology, who could be instrumental in keeping the process moving forward. With their help, and the continued efforts of Gov. Fallin, this technology is ready to take off — and bring Oklahoma's economy along with it.
Toscano is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to the advancement of unmanned systems and robotics.