WHEN U.S. Sen. Rand Paul droned on during a filibuster last month about unmanned aircraft, he tapped a growing unease about drones. But something else is growing in this arena. It's the importance of unmanned aircraft to the Oklahoma economy.
A late February rally at the state Capitol managed to do what few causes can, which is to unite conservative lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both are suspicious of drones and their potential for abuse by government operatives. Paul's filibuster was an unsuccessful attempt to block confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan, the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge CIA drone attacks against terrorist targets.
Paul's fears, somewhat echoed at the Capitol rally, center on targeting Americans using unmanned aircraft. But drones are chiefly eyed for purposes far less nefarious. And unless the increased use of drones is shot down, unmanned aircraft will be a growth industry.
Drones are big business. Officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), their development has focused on uses in the military and spying sectors. Opportunities abound for the commercial use of drones. Gov. Mary Fallin formed the Governor's Unmanned Aerial Systems Council in 2011. State officials have been actively promoting UAVs as an economic development tool. A gathering of UAV enthusiasts took place in Norman last week and included presentations on UAV usage in agriculture, weather monitoring and law enforcement.
“Oklahoma is working to be the nation's center” for UAV development, a State Chamber CEO Briefing noted last week. At the same time, some lawmakers here and in other states want to ground drones. Stephen McKeever, state secretary of science and technology, says Oklahoma is already home to more than a dozen companies serving the UAV industry. State incentive programs covering the aerospace industry also apply to the UAV sector.
Drones have taken on the patina of the genetically modified foods controversy, with emotional arguments pitted against rational responses from those profiting from new developments. Just as there's no consensus on whether modified foods pose a danger to consumers, drones are alternately viewed as Big Brother's invasion of our privacy or a logical step in performing certain tasks in a safer, less labor-intensive way.
Technology journalist Neal Ungerleider quotes UAV lobbyist Michael Toscano's prediction that the integration of commercial drones into American airspace will create 70,000 jobs in the first three years, with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. Given Oklahoma's historic ties to the aerospace industry and the skills of its workforce in this area, the state is an ideal place for UAV development.
This isn't lost on economic development officials, which include the governor. Rather than associate drones with CIA-style assassination strikes, they see UAVs as a “gold rush waiting to happen” — to put it in Ungerleider's words. A key player will be the Federal Aviation Administration, a major employer in Oklahoma City. The FAA is working on federal policy to integrate UAVs into American airspace. It will fund six domestic test sites for UAVs.
Already involved in testing military uses of drones, Oklahoma would like to be one of those test sites. It should be. We don't see drones as exposing society to a brave new world of relatively cheap spying platforms. We see them as a technological development that the state can either shun with official policy or encourage with official policy. Our policy shouldn't view drones as assassination machines.
Two days before the Ides of March this year, a bill to restrict drones in Oklahoma was pulled, partly due to Fallin's concern that it would jeopardize the state's chances of a becoming an FAA test site for UAVs.
Oklahoma's skies should remain friendly to the UAV industry.