Where America’s drones are made
The West Coast
More specifically, California and Washington State. The AUVSI report lists them as the No.1 and No. 2 states to benefit from job creation and increased economic activity resulting from the UAS industry, which should come as no surprise considering that the duo are also the top two states for the larger aerospace industry. Though headquartered in Chicago, Boeing’s (BA) major manufacturing operation is based in Washington along with subsidiary Insitu, which specializes in unmanned aircraft. It’s also home to Pacific Northwest National Lab, a federally funded lab under the Department of Energy whose partial mission is to develop counterterrorism technologies through enhanced information gathering and information analysis — activities for which UAS are well-suited. A consortium including PNNL is currently lobbying the FAA to place a test site in central Washington, which would solidify its place as a UAS industry center of gravity.
But the beating heart of the UAS industry on the West Coast and in the nation at large is further down coast in California, where powerhouse defense research labs belonging to the likes of Northrop Grumman (NOC) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) are scattered among storied military flight-test facilities like those at Edwards Air Force Base. Where defense is concerned, California already has the U.S. drone industry cornered. General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper drones, now famous/infamous for their roles in the CIA’s targeted strike programs in places like Yemen and Pakistan, roll off the assembly line in California, and small UAS maker Aerovironment — based in Monrovia, Calif. — supplies the Department of Defense with the vast majority of its unmanned aerial systems, mostly small surveillance drones like the man-portable Raven UAS that infantry can carry in a backpack and launch by tossing into the air like a football (pictured above). California is also aggressively pursuing an FAA test site designation, and with its gentle climate and varied geography (including plenty of maritime environment) it seems a strong candidate to receive it. The state is the center of the UAS industry as it stands right now, and that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Texas is also riding high on AUVSI’s state-by-state UAS industry rankings at No. 3. That’s largely because, like California, Washington, and Florida, its existing aerospace and defense industries are strong — Lockheed Martin has a large presence there, as does Bell Helicopter, General Dynamics (GD), Boeing, Raytheon (RTN), Rockwell Collins (COL), and many others. The state of its engineering education and workforce is likewise strong, with universities like Texas A&M taking an active interest in UAS development and traditional aerospace anchors like Johnson Space Center drawing the right kind of educated workforce to the state.
However, civilian skies are not poised to be filled with militarized MQ-9 Reaper drones — rather, small UAS (under 55 pounds) will drive the coming drone industry boom, and Texas has its fair share of small UAS makers emerging as well. Despite its name, Conroe’s Vanguard Defense Industries also makes small unmanned helicopters suited for non-military applications like facility security, surveying and cartography, infrastructure inspection, and other domestic/civilian uses. Likewise, Austin’s DJI Inc. produces small UAS suitable for similar aerial photography roles as well as onboard autopilot modules and other flight components for small UAS.
But that’s still not the most notable thing about Texas. On top of its generally business-friendly climate, deep aerospace roots, and a varied geography and climate (for flight test purposes), Texas as a state is fairly friendly to drones. Sure, there are a couple of voices in Austin calling for UAS restrictions arising from privacy concerns, but Texas has been quite progressive where public safety UAS are concerned. A Houston-area Sheriff’s department has operated an unmanned helicopter for more than a year (though it recently ran into a bit of trouble with the FAA), and Arlington police have secured certification from the FAA to operate two unmanned helicopters during police operations there. That may not sound like much, but in terms of drone adoption it’s pioneering. While some states — Idaho and Virginia come to mind — are already passing laws to restrict drone usage before they are even being used, from a policy standpoint Texas is thus far keeping a very open mind. Ultimately that’s going to be very important to companies looking for states in which to set up shop.
Ohio & Indiana
California, Washington, Texas, and Florida might seem like safe bets for states that stand to prosper from an aerospace-related boom, and they are, for various reasons. They’re the top-ranking states in the AUVSI analysis (followed by Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania). But as mentioned previously, there are still plenty of variables that could shift the national composition of UAS-related jobs, revenues, federal and state investment, and overall economic impacts. And if you’re not at the top of the pack where existing aerospace infrastructure is concerned, you can always up your drone economy cred by joining up with the state next door.
That’s exactly what Ohio and Indiana have done. Long economically linked by their shared Rust Belt heritages, Ohio and Indiana have combined their bids for an FAA test site. And there’s no reason to think this dark horse candidate might not win it. Both are middle-tier aerospace states by most metrics, but together they make a more attractive package. The test site would likely be just outside of Dayton, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force base, a hub for UAS sensor payload research and development and home to Air Force Research Laboratory, which is exactly what it sounds like. Given that America’s armed forces are now training more drone pilots than human fighter pilots, one can easily surmise what kind of research is going on there.
Moreover, if California and Florida are attractive for their year-round mild weather, Ohio and Indiana are attractive for the opposite reason: The weather there can be pretty rough. UAS need to be able to operate reliably in all weather conditions, and an Ohio/Indiana test site could subject them to all four seasons, including that brutal Great Lakes winter sleet/snow/wind/slush that challenges any aircraft, manned or unmanned. This partnership has a solid shot at winning an FAA test site designation, and if it does it could pull a lot of research and development resources into its orbit.
Florida possesses a lot of the same advantages as California — a robust existing aerospace and military presence, a vast maritime environment for UAS testing, easygoing year-round weather for flight testing. But there’s another reason to like Florida: Education. Between NASA’s Space Coast and a sizeable military aerospace presence, Florida is already home to a workforce of highly-skilled aerospace personnel — many of whom are currently looking for something new to occupy them as the Space Shuttle program has wound down — and it’s generating more all the time. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach is one of the few American universities offering a specialized program in UAS design and operations — something UAS designers and manufacturers desperately need as their industry grows (UAS engineering is more like a blend of the traditional disciplines of aeronautical, electrical, and software engineering, plus a minor in robotics). AUVSI lists Florida as No. 4 in its ranking of states poised to benefit from the integration of UAS into the national airspace, but with such a solid aerospace engineering foundation, it wouldn’t be surprising if it were to challenge Texas for its number three slot.
New Mexico is an interesting case because of its overall averageness, save a few key aspects. In the larger national aerospace picture, New Mexico sits right in the middle of the pack (a 2012 Deloitte evaluation of the U.S. aerospace and defense industry by state ranked New Mexico 29th in aerospace/defense employment, 25th in average wages in the sector, and 34th in total revenues derived from the industry). But with the FAA still evaluating bids for its six UAS-dedicated test sites, New Mexico’s Physical Science Laboratory (administered by New Mexico State University) is home to the only FAA-approved UAS test facility in the U.S. — the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center — where companies from out of state like Aerovironment (AVAV), Boeing, and AAI Corporation have for years trucked their UAS for flight tests. With an operational framework and solid reputation already in place, the Flight Test Center is years ahead of any new test facility that might be designated in the coming months.
Moreover, the U.S. government — particularly its defense infrastructure — has already deemed New Mexico an important state for technology development and has cultivated an educated native workforce there. New Mexico is home to massive test ranges at White Sands (both for military missiles and NASA’s space rockets), Spaceport America, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories (a government-owned research center operated by Lockheed Martin), and Los Alamos National Laboratory. As a state, it doesn’t have to worry about importing engineering talent or where the FAA chooses to place its new test facilities. It also supports various state tax deductions for aerospace companies as well as incentives for capital investment and workforce development in the field. As such, many aerospace companies large and small maintain outposts in New Mexico, and the climate is favorable to those wishing to launch a UAS concern.
In other words, though the UAS industry isn’t necessarily booming there at present, all the ingredients are there for New Mexico’s drone industry to continue gathering momentum.
Oklahoma is another state that, where the larger aerospace picture is concerned, sits squarely in the middle of the rankings by just about all important metrics. But when one ticks through the list of things that will be important to UAS designers and manufacturers going forward, the Sooner State distinguishes itself in just about every way.
Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City (pictured above) is a major Department of Defense air outpost (the Navy is also resident there) that is home to one of the Air Force’s major aircraft overhaul and repair centers, requiring a local workforce that is aerospace-inclined. The state’s private aerospace sector has long serviced just about every segment of the larger aerospace industry, and about 15 existing companies already work directly in the UAS space on everything from sensor payloads to components for low-cost hobby UAS.
Oklahoma State University is the first four-year university in the nation to offer graduate degrees (both a master’s and a Ph.D.) specific to unmanned aerial systems engineering, and through the school’s University Multispectral Lab the state has long served as a test bed for advanced military technologies, including unmanned systems.
Perhaps most importantly, Oklahoma is aggressively pursuing UAS-oriented aerospace businesses like almost no one else. The state is offering copious incentives for companies in the UAS space to settle there, and it could benefit somewhat from its close proximity to aerospace/defense powerhouse Texas by swaying some companies with roots south of the Red River to open up facilities on the Oklahoma side, especially if Oklahoma lands an FAA test site certification. It’s not in any position to unseat California, Washington, Florida, or Texas at the very top, but among mid-sized, middle-ranking aerospace states with huge potential for growth in the UAS sector, Oklahoma is perhaps the most likeable.
Where wooing new manufacturing business from out of town is concerned, there’s a lot to be said about Alabama. When European aerospace giant EADS was looking for a location to build a U.S. manufacturing facility for its Airbus A320 airliners, Mobile got the nod. The Mercedes-Benz manufacturing plant in Tuscaloosa has continued to steadily add jobs and facilities since the state successfully convinced the German manufacturer (part of Daimler AG) to locate there back in the mid-1990s. Alabama is aggressive when courting new manufacturing jobs, and it has a proven track record of landing big deals with big companies.
That on its own might not say much for its place in the UAS industry where much of the coming innovation and growth is just as likely to come from smaller aerospace concerns. But Alabama is also notable among U.S. states for ranking fifth in percentage of state GDP derived from the aerospace sector. Going back to the early stages of the space race, Huntsville has been and remains an anchor for U.S. aerospace innovation.
The Army’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Project Management Office is located outside of Huntsville at the Redstone Arsenal and often loops University of Alabama Huntsville students into its work, helping to educate a native local work force with experience in the field (its proximity to Florida’s aerospace-rich employment pool can’t hurt either). Whether or not all of that adds up to Alabama winning an FAA test site designation or whether it will break out to become a major UAS industry hub is still pretty unclear, but as a dark horse candidate there’s plenty to like in Alabama. And if it does win a test site certification the calculus for the state could change dramatically. Right now it’s a sleeper within the industry, but it might just be a sleeping giant.