A leader of a prominent unmanned aerial systems advocacy group says demand for drone-related work will push the emerging UAS industry above economic growth estimates in future years in Ohio and the United States.
But the industry needs federal regulations to be successful and take-off safely, said Brian Wynne, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Demand is strong in agriculture, construction, real estate and insurance, among other fields.
“This is about serving major segments of the U.S. economy that are just waiting to fly,” he said.
Wynne was a key speaker at the Ohio UAS Conference on the opening day Tuesday at the Dayton Convention Center. More than 400 attendees and just over 40 exhibitors gathered from across the country, a significant drop compared to more than 700 attendees and about 70 vendors who attended last year.
Rich Knoll, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of aerospace development, attributed the decline to a proliferation of UAS conferences around the nation, but noted the Dayton conference drew people from 20 states, more than last year, and differentiated itself with a one-day Sinclair Community College academic summit prior to the conference and networking opportunities to gain business with the Air Force.
In an economic impact assessment two years ago, AUVSI projected more than $2 billion in economic gains and more than 2,700 new UAS-related jobs in Ohio and an $82 billion market and 100,000 jobs in the United States within 10 years once drones are flying under Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Wynne sees those estimates today as too conservative if and when the FAA releases the rules for commercial flight of drones in the nation’s skies. The FAA was scheduled to integrate drones into civilian airspace by next month, but a spokeswoman said last week that has been pushed forward to within a year. In the interim, the federal agency has given exemptions to more than 1,000 businesses, including several locally, to fly drones commercially.
AUVSI favors developing technology and rules that would allow extended line of sight, beyond line of sight and night time operations. Until the rules are in place, the industry won’t know what technology will fly in the marketplace, he said.
“There are more complex operations that we think we can … with the advancement of technology and good operational awareness … we can achieve successfully, safely and responsibly,” he said.
The Commercial Electronics Association recently estimated about 700,000 people in the United States have drones and the number of hobbyists is expected to rise by thousands more every month.
As the number of owners has mushroomed, pilots in the cockpit have recorded more than 650 sightings of drones through Aug. 9 of this year, far more than the 238 in all of last year, the FAA revealed this month.
The development of UAV-related sense and avoidance technology is a key area for research among Ohio scientists and engineers. This fall, Ohio State University and other universities will partner to test avoidance technology above Wilmington Air Park, said Jim Gregory, associate director of Ohio State’s UAS Aerospace Research Center.
NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has tackled UAV-related issues, such as boosting advanced communications and dealing with the danger of ice freezing on the wings of drones.
“I think it’s an emerging technology that’s growing within NASA as the technology is becoming more widespread and more and more people using it,” said Janet Kavandi, NASA Glenn deputy director.
One state official said the potential of UAVs in agriculture holds promise to boost crops yields, adding jobs in both farming, Ohio’s number one industry, and aerospace.
But the potential of the unmanned industry is undetermined, said Ryan Smith, director of UAS for the state of Ohio.
“I think if you were to say specifically what’s it going to look like in five years, that’s going to be anybody’s guess,” he said. “The technology is still evolving, the uses of the technology seem to change on a day-by-day or hour-by-hour basis where people come up with great, new ideas.”
Big and small exhibitors set up shop Tuesday at the conference.
James Utt, president of sensor manufacturer Defense Engineering Corp. in Beavercreek, took note of the smaller crowd compared to last year’s record conference attendance, but was “cautiously optimistic” on finding leads to new business.
“The value is you get a lot of people looking for solutions or having ideas,” he said.
Defense giant Northrop Grumman displayed a large model of a Global Hawk surveillance drone as a company official noted the Air Force program office was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the state’s key role in developing UAS technology.
“Ohio is kind of leading that effort so it makes sense for us to be here,” said Bill Walker, a Northrop Grumman official from San Diego. “We’re looking for new technology, too.”