The center of the American drone revolution might be Stillwater, Oklahoma

Drones are predominantly associated with the military, but commercial uses are on the rise. The biggest day-to-day life example was the whole Amazon-reveals-it-on-60-Minutes thing (although some believe that might be kinda far off), but there are implications for the oil and gas industry (monitoring pipelines), agriculture (dust crops/search for livestock/record growth rates), retail (see Amazon), and city management (drones could survey damage after a crisis). Although this portends a bit of a 1984-type future, there’s a chance drones could be part of local police forces someday as well.

That’s all a heavily-linked way of saying that drones are about to be a huge industry (depending on what happens with regulations, etc.) So, who’s going to cash in? One potentially unlikely source: the state of Oklahoma.

Currently, there are about 18 companies based in Oklahoma that do work with drones. Oklahoma State, in Stillwater, created the world’s first graduate program in unmanned aerial systems, and Oklahoma is one of about 20 states competing to be a federally-designated test site for the industry (ultimately, there will probably be six test sites via the feds). Privacy requirements are still an issue on that front, so the FAA has a “road map” but hasn’t designated the test sites yet. The decision could come in early 2014, with the goal of more drones in air space by September – November 2015 (that latter date will likely be pushed back). Oklahoma has been one of the most aggressive campaigners to be a federal site, though. Fast Company even did a feature on it.

Oklahoma’s pitch was centered around a few key concepts:

Oklahoma’s application to become a test site boasts 300 flying days a year, a dedicated 201-acre park with a 2,500-foot runway adjacent to Fort Sill and available air space that stretches about 90 miles from Fort Sill to the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base.

Fort Sill is bordered on all sides by state parks and mountain ranges, so that idea makes some logical sense.

If Oklahoma got selected as a test site, some think it would be tied to 2,000 new jobs, $200 million in new economic activity and $20 million in state tax revenue. Oklahoma is the 28th-largest state and runs on a budget of about $7 billion, so the increase in economic activity would be significant for them. Of course, there are worries — there’s a “No Drones Oklahoma” Facebook group, privacy concerns are an issue, and they’re bringing in reporters from The Guardian to talk about the concept across the state.

There was even a “drone conference” last week in Midwest City, Oklahoma. There’s video from the conference here. (Come to think of it, that’s probably where Ed Pilkington was headed off that tweet above, eh?) This is all really big stuff, because — again, depending on regulations — some estimate that the drone industry, if it takes off (pun not intended, wholly because I can’t write), could add 100K jobs and $82 billion to the economy in just the next 30 years. Now, the idea of unmanned aircraft flying around all over the place is a bit much, but … who knew that we’d all be linked on one social network allowing us to easily stalk our exes even 12 years ago? The future changes quickly. There’s a great opportunity here, and let’s hope Oklahoma can cash in.

Ted Bauer


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