Oklahoma Aerospace Alliance's 2011 Oklahoma Aerospace Summit and Expo: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Sector Shows Much Promise for Growth

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Oklahoma stands on the cusp of a dynamic new economic platform: development of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The aerospace sector already provides the state an impressive economic engine, as Gov. Mary Fallin and Secretary of Commerce and Tourism Dave Lopez said Tuesday during the Oklahoma Aerospace Alliance's 2011 Oklahoma Aerospace Summit and Expo. The sector's 500 related companies generate $12 billion of industrial output annually, their 150,000 workers drawing a $5 billion payroll.

But the startup UAV sector - also known as unmanned aerial systems, or UAS - already promises to make a sizable addition. In just five years this cottage industry, rising from obscurity to global prominence through the U.S. military's Middle East war applications, has already generated $323 million in orders through Ponca City's Oklahoma State University Multispectral Laboratories.

"This particular industry is probably the most dynamic growth area in aerospace right now," said James Grimsley, president and CEO of Norman-based Design Intelligence, whose company "stumbled" into UAV development four years ago.

Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's secretary for science and technology, expects these UAVs to gain a sizable support platform through initiatives launched by Fallin supporting seven different facilities across the state. He will head the governor's UAS advisory council to help groom this budding industry.

"We're at the cusp of exponential growth," McKeever said while moderating an afternoon summit panel on aerospace innovation and technology. "Truly exponential growth will happen when U.S. airspace is opened to UAVs."

With military and surveillance applications becoming ever more apparent, Grimsley said analysts continue to upgrade this new sector's potential annual sales.

"Originally they were estimated at $60 billion over the next decade," he said. "Now they're estimated to reach $94 billion over the next decade."

And that's with few commercial applications yet identified. Grimsley and McKeever expect a wide plethora to follow once Congress agrees to widespread usage of the bird-sized vehicles. …