The Future Takes Flight: Expanding Opportunities for Commercial Drones
By: Fred Morgan, President & CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma
The potential for commercial drones in the United States—and Oklahoma in particular—is vast.
Drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), can spur innovation and make business, farming and industry more efficient. UAS can also help keep Americans safe through various national security, border protection and disaster management applications.
Recent changes to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules mean that commercial drones are now more attainable for small business owners, farmers and entrepreneurs. With these changes, the burgeoning UAS industry is expected to expand further. Within the year, 600,000 commercial drone aircraft will be operational.
In Oklahoma, the anticipated economic impact of the UAS industry is $57.6 million, with the potential to create thousands of new jobs by 2025.
Oklahoma is positioned to be a leader in this emerging industry. As the first state to be approved for testing UAS, Oklahoma has a strong UAS research and infrastructure base already established. In addition, Oklahoma State University is the only university in the nation to have a UAS-focused graduate degree. Further, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Advisory Council launched by Governor Fallin in 2011 has helped solidify Oklahoma’s reputation as a UAS hub.
The commercial possibilities for UAS are virtually limitless. Drones have been employed in photography, military operations and site surveying for some time. But the horizons are widening to include a spectrum of industries including agriculture, oil & gas, retail, media, technology and engineering.
Drones are ideally suited for tasks that could be physically hazardous, such as firefighting or inspecting transmission lines, bridges and construction sites. In agriculture, drones can be used to monitor crops, livestock and irrigation systems. Modified UAS can be used to treat fields and assess moisture levels. Drones can be particularly beneficial for rural populations, with the potential to enhance internet connectivity and expedite package deliveries.
Even with the many current utilizations for drones, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of this technology’s potential. There may be numerous other uses for UAS that we haven’t even thought of yet. This can be a game-changing technology, provided that we don’t impede the UAS industry’s growth through excessive regulation.
The FAA has made it easier for a greater number of people to operate small unmanned aircraft (weighing 55 pounds or less) by eliminating the requirement of a traditional pilot’s license. However, key protections remain in place. For example, operators must keep the aircraft within their line of sight at all times and not exceed heights of 400 feet or speeds of 100 mph. Moreover, UAS pilots must avoid flying over people who are not involved in the UAS operation. Operators must also secure a remote pilot’s certificate (with a small UAS rating) or be actively supervised by someone who holds such a certificate.
The new FAA rule does not deal directly with privacy or data collection. However, the FAA will provide recommended privacy guidelines as part of the registration process. And before a remote pilot’s certificate is issued, TSA performs a security background check on all applicants.
The rise of any new technology inevitably raises new concerns, and drones are no different. It can be tempting to react to the unknown with stringent regulations. However, it is important to neither over-regulate or under-regulate emerging fields like unmanned aircraft systems. This balanced approach allows UAS innovation to reach its maximum potential while properly navigating safety and privacy considerations.
With its new rules that went into effect August 29, the FAA has chosen a smart course—to allow the commercial UAS market to continue its soaring growth while anchoring that growth to appropriate safety standards.
At the State Chamber of Oklahoma, we likewise support policies that allow the UAS industry to reach its full height without losing sight of core safeguards.
By embracing this growing industry, Oklahoma can build on its momentum as an economic and industry leader in UAS. And by remaining mindful of—and responsive to—community questions related to the usage of this new technology, we can most effectively and responsibly advance the field of commercial drone aircraft in Oklahoma.
The unmanned aircraft industry is on the ascent, helping address important business, societal and industrial challenges along the way.
We’re looking forward to what is next on the horizon.