FARNBOROUGH: Oklahoma governor outlines aerospace vision

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governor Mary Fallin is leading a delegation of the state's aerospace and UAV companies at the show, accompanied by secretary of science and technology Stephen McKeever. They aim to demonstrate why Oklahoma is a leader in the UAV sector and how its military and civil aerospace clusters are establishing it as a hub for innovation, research and development.

Why should a UAV manufacturer go to Oklahoma to test?

McKeever: Because it's building an infrastructure related to UAV industry. What we have are a network of unmanned vehicle testing facilities that is second to none in the nation. And this goes all the way from restricted airspace that we control the access to, all the way out to large airports where we can land the largest vehicles, and all the way through to MRO facilities to support the maintenance of any such vehicles, and a lot of supporting manufacturing. We also have the nation's leading R&D efforts at Oklahoma State University, and we have the nations' leading R&D efforts in radar technology at the University of Oklahoma. When you put all of this together, it is an enviable set of assets.

What is the state government doing to facilitate these developments?

McKeever: The governor set up the unmanned air systems council, which I have the honour to chair − an advisory council to governor Fallin. And what we're doing is developing a strategic plan for the growth of the business − the unmanned air systems business − in Oklahoma. And it's because of the governor's lead in doing this that we've been able to assemble this strong consortium.

Can you give us an example?

McKeever: I can, unfortunately one of the best areas is in a sensitive area related to the military, so I can't give a lot of detail. If you'll forgive me, I'll speak in somewhat general terms. We were approached by an entity of the US military to see if we could develop a particular kind of UAV for them. And we put together a public and private group consisting of three or four entities, and we responded to that request as a consortium, and in doing so achieved the metrics they were requesting in record time. In fact, we just had a programme review just last week in which they are now going to expand the programme and give us more work to do.

Fallin: One of the things we've worked on for many, many years is to lay a solid foundation of the aerospace industry in our state, along with our military operations. Oklahoma has a significant presence in aerospace and defence companies [and] workforce, service, supply; [it has] expertise in these areas. We are now home to over 500 aerospace companies with a workforce of over 150,000 people strong, so it's a great place to be in the United States not to mention that we also have a FAA air traffic control school where people come to train from all over the US in aerospace and air traffic controlling. Oklahoma is a stable economy, a growing economy, and strong pro-business, pro-aviation policies have made it attractive. Last year, we were able to pass an engineer's tax credit, which helps businesses when it comes to being able to attract engineers and being able to graduate people with engineering degrees into the workforce. And then we have the career technology centres, which have all kinds of aerospace-related programmes. And for UAV in particular we have the only graduate-level degree in the USA at Oklahoma State University, so we actually offer degrees in UAV systems.

Why UAVs, instead of nano­technology or medicine?

Fallin: Well, we like those industries too, and they have a place in Oklahoma's economy. But aerospace and the military are moving towards more use of UAV systems, and that contribution has, as we've seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, helped save lives. The use of drones has been a big boon to national security. And, of course, there are other users besides the military and national defence there are so many future applications and industries this can be used in, it's just a great, emerging sector of aviation that we want to be the top sector in for the industry.

What is the reaction from federal authorities?

McKeever: It's been very good. Our relationships with the military in particular have been strong. There are several federal agencies we're currently working with we have excellent relationships with several different components in the military. Our National Guard unit is one of the most respected in terms of not just its combat operations but also its disaster response operations within the state. In addition to that, we are establishing close relationships with the FAA. We've had a number of them come out and visit and take part in our discussions, and we are cognisant of the FAA's number one priority, which is safety.

What about state representatives to Washington?

McKeever: We're keeping our congressional delegation well informed about everything we're doing. We've received great support from them. And they in return are keeping their eye on any specific legislation that may be necessary in the future. They were very supportive of the legislation that required the FAA to establish these test ranges. And should it be that new legislation is required, we know that we have their support in pushing that forward. At the moment, I think the legislators are in a wait-and-see mode to see how this industry develops.

Last we spoke, Oklahoma was applying to create a UAV-safe airspace corridor. Is that still in the works?

McKeever: The first step in that is to submit a couple of authorisation requests at the end points of the corridor. As we speak we've had a couple of those accepted, and the third one is in application at the moment. Once those have been done, we will then apply for the corridor to link a couple of those sites. So it's a step-by-step process, and unfortunately we're dealing with the federal government so it does take a long time. We'd like to have done it by now, but that's the way things are. It's moving forward slowly, but it's moving forward nevertheless.

Locals?

Fallin: They think it's a great asset and a great resource for the state of Oklahoma, and they're anxious to be able to utilise that to its full capacity. It closed as Clinton-Sherman AFB a long time ago, but now it's one of the best assets in the USA. It has a 4,572m (15,000ft) runway; it has huge amounts of hangar space; it's a valuable asset that would be tremendous for any company. We, of course, think there's a great synergy there. You'll be able to connect to a number of our other great resources with Lawton, Fort Sill Army post, the University Multispectral Lab. We actually formed a group called the Space Industry Development Authority, which has a board that promotes that facility in attracting businesses there.

Does the state of Oklahoma fly any UAVs?

McKeever: The earliest adopter will be the National Guard for use in emergency response in the state. The National Guard are a vital element of our emergency response system. For example, responding to wildfires. And because of their experience with operating UAS in combat, in theatre, they will be able to adapt the technology quickly for use in their domestic responsibilities. The other units that are looking at early adoption are our law enforcement units, for example our Highway Patrol and various police departments, and they are standing by watching this space very carefully to see how it develops.

What should we expect in the future?

McKeever: We can look forward to several sites within the states from which we can operate UAVs. We can look forward to robust R&D support and training for all the operators and expertise that you may need. We can also look forward to the growth of a significant number of smaller companies especially which are expert in building specific UAVs for specific industries. All of these things are beginning to happen, or have happened already, and in the next few years you will see that grow very robustly.