WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is poised to select six locations to test drone technology, and state leaders across the country are lobbying for the chance to open their skies to new unmanned vehicles — and maybe become the Silicon Valley of drone technology.
The competition is fierce because state officials expect the sites to create thousands of jobs as drone manufacturers come to test their aircraft.
At the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's conference last week in Washington, Ohio gave away cookies shaped like the state. Utah had a large inflatable yeti holding a model of a drone.
North Dakota is taking a more academic approach: It touts the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota, which state officials say has the country's first four-year unmanned aircraft systems degree.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the agency to study the safety of unmanned aerial vehicles so it can begin to certify commercial drones to fly in domestic airspace.
The FAA is expected to make a decision on the test-site locations in December. The agency has said that once it unveils the regulatory framework, the air will be filled with 7,500 small drones within five years.
Maryland's effort is being led by the University System of Maryland, which already researches drone technology with NASA and the Navy. Moving into commercial unmanned-vehicle space is a natural extension of that work, said Matthew Scassero, the University of Maryland's test site director. Some of the system's researchers have been working on unmanned-vehicle issues for nearly two decades, he said.
At the conference in Washington last week, Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, touted his state's credentials, including an Air Force research lab. "This is an emerging technology, and it's going to have a number of economic impacts," he said.
The commercial drone market is growing rapidly, raising important public policy issues, including privacy concerns, said North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R).
North Dakota has already moved aggressively into the commercial drone market, he said, including evaluating aircraft to be used for agricultural projects, search-and-rescue missions, and inspections of infrastructure such as power lines and pipelines for oil, gas and water.
The state has established a privacy compliance committee that vets drone testing for legal, moral, ethical and constitutional issues, said Wrigley, who leads the group.
"We have a pretty strong libertarian streak up here," he said, adding that just because something is constitutional "doesn't mean it's something you want to have going on in your state all the time."
Those privacy discussions are important but should be kept in perspective, said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's secretary for science and technology. "We are supportive of an informed discussion about this whole business, not simply a little paranoid on the privacy issue nor getting carried away on the societal benefits of the applications, but to have the middle ground — that's where this discussion should be taking place," he said.
In some cases, gaining an FAA test site could give a rural area a technological edge. Kris Cahoon Noble, a county planner and economic developer from Hyde County, N.C., said the drone sites provide an opportunity to promote an underutilized airport, as well as bring new precision agriculture techniques to the attention of local farmers.
Wyoming officials noted that drone technology could help farmers count livestock and law enforcement search for people lost in the wilderness — both important in a state with vast expanses of land and more animals than people.
Even if their states are not selected for FAA test sites, many officials said they plan to develop their drone economies independently. This is "the next significant growth in aerospace," said Alan Palmer, director of the Center for UAS Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota. "We think we have a strong proposal — if we're designated, that's great; if not, that's okay, too, because we're going to continue doing what we're doing."