You have likely seen an increase in news coverage on the subject of unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Get ready to see more as the Federal Aviation Administration works to integrate the use of UAVs in the commercial sector. Arkansas has the potential to be on the forefront of commercial drone usage and can help pioneer solutions to many of the inherent dangers and challenges associated with an increased number of remote-piloted drones in the nation’s airspace.
According to an economic impact study conducted by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, there is tremendous growth opportunity with integration of UAVs in the commercial space.
AUVSI predicts that in the first three years alone, UAV integration will create more that 70,000 jobs and an additional $13.6 billion in economic activity (more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs could be created). The potential isn’t just about the drones; it is also about the technologies that they will carry — from sensors measuring soil moisture and plant disease to cameras counting plants and estimating yields on a 40-acre corn crop.
The impact for Arkansas is estimated at $80 million and an additional 400 jobs over the first three years of integration. This number could grow if Arkansas can capitalize on some of its inherent advantages.
Currently, the FAA is working to release regulations on the use of small drones (less than 55 pounds) in commercial activities per the FAA reauthorization recently passed by Congress instructing them to do so. FAA plans to publish and implement its final rule sometime in the next 12 months.
Meanwhile, they have issued more than 1,000 exemptions for commercial UAV usage. For example, NFL Films was granted an exemption to use drones in their film productions. However, drone-wary football fans need not to worry, as the exemption doesn’t include use during live NFL games.
As exemptions are granted and the new rules are approaching release, commercial applicability will continue to expand. AUVSI’s economic impact study found that 90 percent of growth opportunity is found in the precision agriculture and public safety sectors. That could be good news for Arkansas. With Arkansas’ large base of agriculture production, we will see more use of UAVs here in the Natural State.
Whether hovering over rice fields checking soil condition or scouting timber, the uses for UAVs in agriculture are as abundant as the farm acreage across Arkansas. With all of the potential applications here in Arkansas, can our manufacturing base and entrepreneurial spirit capture a piece of the economic pie in the production of UAVs? I believe so.
First, Arkansas is still predominantly rural. Many of the commercial-use exemptions granted by the FAA have been for agriculture-related businesses and it seems that the FAA is most comfortable with allowing UAVs in agriculture at least partly because there is less danger of wayward drones injuring people and property. This could be a hint at what we will see in the final FAA regulations when they are published. In other words, FAA is probably going to allow commercial drone use over rice and soybean fields in Poinsett County as opposed to weaving in and out of high rises in lower Manhattan.
This provides opportunities for not only agribusinesses to gain in production efficiency with use of new technologies but also companies on the production and development side positioned in and around the probable first-use geographic areas.
In addition, Arkansas has a strong base of aerospace and defense companies that have chosen to locate here. With companies like Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Dassault Falcon Jet positioned for growth, Arkansas has developed a strong manufacturing base supplying these companies. This supplier base supports many of the skilled employees who could be the base of growth in UAV development. From design work to advanced techniques in manufacturing, Arkansas has the technically trained workforce to expand into UAV production.
Finally, while there are many positives to integration of UAVs, there are also concerns and challenges. But those too could bring increased safety and opportunity. There have been numerous reports regarding airline pilots viewing drones from the cockpit during flights, and we all remember the drone that landed on the White House lawn. Safety is paramount within the aviation industry and the integration of drones into the airspace must take place gradually to ensure the continued safety of the flying public. We know there will be continued need for geofencing, or virtual barriers, to provide additional security alerts when a drone flies too close to a restricted area. While some geofencing related to drone safety is already in place, more systems will be required, or wanted, by the general public to prevent unwanted and unsafe intrusions.
There will also be an increased demand for safety mechanisms to protect aircraft from drone strikes. One company working in this area, Shield Aero, is located right here in Arkansas. They are developing technology for jets to reduce dangers associated with drones, or birds for that matter, damaging jet engines during flight. This type of pioneering innovation is why I believe Arkansas can capitalize on this new market.
The commercial applicability of UAVs cannot be ignored and the market is pushing for relaxed regulations. With a technologically savvy agricultural sector, a highly skilled aerospace and defense workforce, and a growing entrepreneurial spirit, Arkansas can capitalize on this future growth. This combination could make UAVs a natural fit for the Natural State.