Don't call them drones, the mindless, empty aircraft used by military fighters for target practice.
Though unmanned aerial vehicles fly without a human pilot on board, today's models are sophisticated, cheap and safe — and they are being designed, manufactured and flown right here in Oklahoma, industry officials say.
The unmanned aerial systems industry is growing worldwide and is poised to truly take flight in the U.S. once the Federal Aviation Administration opens up airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which by law, it must do in 2015. To prepare for the deadline, the FAA plans to choose six states to become designated test sites and Oklahoma is throwing its hat in the ring.
On Thursday, Oklahoma was the first state chosen through a Homeland Security Department program as a testing site for unmanned aerial systems to help first responders — during events such as search and rescue and natural disasters. However, earning the FAA designation would greatly expand the testing possibilities here.
State Secretary of Science and Technology Stephen McKeever, a member of Gov. Mary Fallin's unmanned aerial systems advisory council, said the state already has assets that are attractive to the industry and will make Oklahoma very competitive.
“The main purpose of becoming an FAA test range is really to stick a flag in the ground and say ‘We're here,'” he said. “The hope is, by doing this, we'll be able to build and grow the industry in the state.”
The FAA is expected to request test site proposals in August and make its final selection by the end of the year. About half the states in the country are expected to apply. If Oklahoma is chosen, the designation could attract manufacturers and encourage local companies to perform work on UAVs because testing the vehicles would be convenient.
That, in turn, would bring high-paying jobs, which is why the state Commerce Department is involved, said Dave Wagie, who is leading the effort for the department.
UAV pilots could earn yearly salaries of $85,000 to $115,000; engineers upward of $130,000; and training instructors $75,000 to $80,000, McKeever said.
Currently, the only way to fly a UAV is with a certificate of authorization from the FAA or in restricted airspace, such as at Fort Sill.
Wagie said the military installation near Lawton has designated a 200-square-mile section of airspace that can be used for UAV test flights and approved on short notice.
The flight testing possibilities at Fort Sill are just one of the reasons Oklahoma is becoming recognized for its UAS industry, he said. Oklahoma State University now has a UAS track for aerospace engineering majors and at least a dozen companies are producing electronics, equipment and unmanned aerial vehicles.