The recent history of regional economic development is categorised by fads. In the early 1990s, which saw the decoding of the human genome and officially proclaimed "decade of the brain", every state and region sought a biotechnology complex. Before the dot-com bubble burst, communities were touting features that draw the creative types. These days, local chambers of commerce salivate over nanotechnology companies.
Aerospace has never lost its appeal, and some states are taking aim at the unmanned air vehicle companies that have sprung up. Forget the vast aerospace infrastructure in California, the open spaces of Arizona, the experience of New Mexico - none pursue the UAV business with quite the zeal of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is what is occasionally called a "fly-over state", the inference being that nobody wants to land there. The state accounts for just over 1% of US national gross domestic product, and boasts a population smaller than that of greater Los Angeles.
Within aerospace circles, Oklahoma is known as a place for maintenance: American Airlines and the US Air Force both have enormous maintenance, repair and operations centres in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, respectively. Yet the state's aerospace base is quickly changing. Manufacturing companies in the state exported more than $5 billion in aerospace components in 2010, a 22% increase from the previous year.
Oklahoma was approached in 2005 by the Department of Defense, which was looking for partners to open a UAV testing facility. The DoD, probably the heaviest user of UAVs on Earth, was running out of space in its usual experimentation grounds - places such as Edwards AFB in California and White Sands in New Mexico. Oklahoma, home to a prominent engineering school and wide-open spaces, made for an excellent stomping ground. In 2006, the DoD and Oklahoma State University formed the University Multispectral Laboratories (UML).
With a combination of federal earmarks and state grants, a UAV-dedicated airport was built in Lawton, about 130km (80 miles) southwest of Oklahoma City. The key to this facility is nearby Ft Sill, a sprawling military base best known for housing the US Army's artillery school. Ft Sill also controls a huge chunk of airspace, which is frequently visited by military aircraft making use of the live-firing ranges.
The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow UAVs to fly in US civil airspace without difficult-to-obtain permission, so UML solved the permission problem through bypassing it entirely: they made an agreement with the army to use some of Ft Sill's airspace, where the FAA has no jurisdiction.
"So we can fly any UAV up to a height of 40,000ft [12,200m]," says Dr Stephen McKeever, executive director of UML, "and we can do so essentially at any time." Nearby radio-frequency testing facilities, windtunnels and hyperbaric chambers sweetens the deal, as does access to Ft Sill's bombing ranges.
Dubbed the Oklahoma Training Center for Unmanned Systems (OTC-US), the facility has attracted a number of companies, and UML has expanded from five people in 2006 to 85 in 2011. The largest customer remains the DoD, although McKeever declines to specify which branch.
"I didn't have the vision at that time of what UML has grown into," says McKeever. "It's a convoluted story, as you might imagine, and if we had to imagine all we had to do at the beginning we might have been scared away."
The project enjoys broad political support within Oklahoma. McKeever, in addition to his UML position, was recently appointed Oklahoma's secretary of science and technology, and heads the state's newly formed advisory board. UML has signed a co-operation agreement with the Oklahoma National Guard, and has secured use of Clinton-Sherman airport, an ex-air force base with a 4,100m runway; they are negotiating with the FAA for a UAV-friendly airspace corridor between OTC-US and Clinton-Sherman.
Oklahoma's is not the only government to see the benefits of attracting the UAV industry. Notably, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio are pushing for UAV manufacturers, but no effort is quite as developed or enthusiastic as Oklahoma's." I think what distinguishes us is we're not a single entity, this is a state-wide effort. We have a consortium working together," McKeever says.
McKeever heads Oklahoma's appeal to foreign UAV manufacturers, which he hopes to lure at Paris. It is the first year he has been asked to attend.
He will also be present at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International show, one of the UAV industry's most prominent gatherings. Oklahoma is operating under the "build it and they will come" principle, a plan not always known for its success. But with OTC-US and associated facilities, Oklahoma is in front of the competition.