Summit: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Sector Shows Much Promise for Growth

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 6:00 am

by Kirbey Lee Davis

Journal Record

Oklahoma stands on the cusp of a dynamic new economic platform: development of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The aerospace sector already provides the state an impressive economic engine, as Gov. Mary Fallin and Secretary of Commerce and Tourism Dave Lopez said Tuesday during the Oklahoma Aerospace Alliance’s 2011 Oklahoma Aerospace Summit and Expo. The sector’s 500 related companies generate $12 billion of industrial output annually, their 150,000 workers drawing a $5 billion payroll.

But the startup UAV sector – also known as unmanned aerial systems, or UAS – already promises to make a sizable addition. In just five years this cottage industry, rising from obscurity to global prominence through the U.S. military’s Middle East war applications, has already generated $323 million in orders through Ponca City’s Oklahoma State University Multispectral Laboratories.

“This particular industry is probably the most dynamic growth area in aerospace right now,” said James Grimsley, president and CEO of Norman-based Design Intelligence, whose company “stumbled” into UAV development four years ago.

Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary for science and technology, expects these UAVs to gain a sizable support platform through initiatives launched by Fallin supporting seven different facilities across the state. He will head the governor’s UAS advisory council to help groom this budding industry.

“We’re at the cusp of exponential growth,” McKeever said while moderating an afternoon summit panel on aerospace innovation and technology. “Truly exponential growth will happen when U.S. airspace is opened to UAVs.”

With military and surveillance applications becoming ever more apparent, Grimsley said analysts continue to upgrade this new sector’s potential annual sales.

“Originally they were estimated at $60 billion over the next decade,” he said. “Now they’re estimated to reach $94 billion over the next decade.”

And that’s with few commercial applications yet identified. Grimsley and McKeever expect a wide plethora to follow once Congress agrees to widespread usage of the bird-sized vehicles.
“We don’t know yet what we can do with a tool we’ve never had before,” said McKeever.

This marks just one area where Oklahoma stands ready to capitalize on aerospace technology advances.

Veracity Technology Solutions President Gary Hensley told of breakthroughs his Broken Arrow-based company has scored in ultrasonic 3-D imaging and “eddy current” techniques to help aerospace parts manufacturers maximize the design life of their products. Their 128-element linear array system gained the firm the 2010 MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) of the Year Award from Aviation Week magazine.

Tim Reynolds, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Triton Scientific, told of successes the OSU laboratory’s achieved in remote sensor detection, cyberspace detection systems, U.S. Special Operations Command contracts and other areas. He spoke with particular enthusiasm about a new battery that could provide a particularly strong boost to the solar and wind power sectors.

While Rocky Mountain Power holds manufacturing rights, Reynolds said a development agreement promises to bring up to 3,000 of the battery’s production jobs to Oklahoma.

“It is game-changing technology,” he said.