Despite not being home to any of the six unmanned air vehicle (UAV) test sites selected last year by the US Federal Aviation Administration, Oklahoma (booth 1359) is moving forward with plans intended to make it a leader in the technology once the FAA opens US airspace to unmanned aircraft.

“We have a lot of commercial entities that are waiting for the starter’s gun,” Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and technology, says. “And that starter’s gun is held by the FAA.”

On 14 May, the University Multispectral Laboratories, a nonprofit organization created by Oklahoma State University, intends to sign an agreement with foreign partners to establish an international UAV research group.

Called the International Consortium of Aeronautical Test Sites, the organization aims to foster international industry relationships and improve cross-border UAV research collaboration, says McKeever.

Partner members of the group will include French civil UAV testing organization CESA, the UK's National Aeronautical Centre and the Unmanned Aerial System Centre of Excellence in Quebec, Canada.

Oklahoma is also establishing a UAV innovation center near Tinker AFB outside Oklahoma City, state representatives say.

In addition, the University Multispectral Laboratory and Oklahoma State University, which has a graduate degree programme in UAS engineering, have established a UAS development center in the town of Stillwater.

Since 2012 the US Department of Homeland Security has used Oklahoma as a testing base to evaluate the ability of small UAVs to assist emergency personnel during natural and other disasters, says McKeever.

But while FAA-designated test sites were formed largely to help create certification requirements for UAVs and rules governing their operation, much of Oklahoma’s research focuses on solving problems specific to the state and its industries, he says.

Oklahoma, which sits in the heart of the US “tornado alley”, is a “natural laboratory” for severe weather, which is why researchers in the state are studying whether UAVs can replace data-collecting weather balloons and manned aircraft.

By using UAVs to record temperate, wind speed, humidity, and air pressure in the lower-atmosphere, scientists hope they can provide warnings 1h before a tornado strikes, a vast improvement over the current warning window of about 15min, McKeever says.

Oklahoma is also a booming oil and gas state, and companies in the business are researching the use of UAVs to monitor pipelines and to detect leaks in underground carbon dioxide reservoirs, called carbon sinks, McKeever says.

In addition, utility companies have interest in monitoring power lines with UAVs — work currently performed using pickup trucks, he adds. But those applications are on hold until the FAA finalizes rules for small UAVs - a process that has been ongoing for years.

The FAA says proposed rules, which will be followed by a public comment period, will likely be released later this year.

But until that happens, the FAA insists UAV operations are illegal unless the operator receives a certificate of authorization, granted only to public agencies, or an airworthiness certificate.