Unmanned Aircraft Production Expanding in Oklahoma
A couple years from now, a soldier might look up in the air and see what looks like a bird flying around. That’s no bird, though; it’s eyes in the sky for the military. Development for what’s formally known as the Perching Micro Air Weapon traces back to Oklahoma. It’s just one of the projects students from Oklahoma State University’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program are working on, work that’s paying off for the state.
Professor Jamey Jacob is taking me on a tour of one of a handful of OSU facilities dedicated to unmanned aircraft. Students design the machines, test them in a wind tunnel, put them together, and then eventually take them out to the University’s flying field.
“The opportunity to be able to build airplanes, and just keep building airplanes, you can’t get that anywhere else,” said Wes Combs, one of the students taking graduate-level classes on unmanned aerial systems.
“This is like a big game, it’s like playing with Legos as a 10 year old.”
Combs is working on a project for the military, one he couldn’t really talk about. But when he says he’s working, he’s working.
“The phrase we always say around here is ‘Donuts!’ because that’s when you’re going to be here until 5 AM and that’s when the donut shop opens and you go and get donuts.”
Wes and others are even busier because they’re part of Oklahoma State’s new graduate program solely focused on the aircraft, calling it the only one of its kind in the country. Professor Jamey Jacob has taught undergraduate classes at Oklahoma State for years, and is now leading the higher level students.
“We don’t have to hire extra faculty, or spend extra resources, so it doesn’t cost us any extra. We’re working a lot harder, we’re teaching a lot more than we would normally teach if we didn’t decide to do this, but again we’re doing this because we love to do it, and we think it’s important.”
However, there are costs in other areas. Most notably, the state offers a $5,000 per employee tax credit for up to 5 years. Jacob says the state’s investment is more than paying off.
“Not only are we attracting new jobs within the state, but we’re also attracting companies outside the state who are looking here to move just because of the program we started.”
About 1,000 people in Oklahoma work on unmanned vehicles and systems, known widely as drones. Smaller companies dominate the landscape so far in the state. But with an estimate of $72 billion in spending in the U.S. on drones over the next ten years, there’s tremendous room for growth.
“For years we worried about the brain drain in Oklahoma where people left, where companies left, and we’re seeing the opposite now. We’re seeing the best and brightest of other universities applying for jobs here in Oklahoma or wanting to come to grad school in Oklahoma,” said James Grimsley, head of UAS design-builder company Design Intelligence Incorporated.
That company won a Defense Department contract to develop the Perching Micro Air Vehicle, aka the Flying Bird. He knows the value of having an educated base when it comes to his work. He’s used both OSU and OU as a pipeline.
“They went from doing this type of research and work as graduate students to suddenly being industry engineers doing the same work.”
Grimsley says D.I.I. is far ahead of others in developing advanced systems. All of this leads to a good kind of problem: students are building more advanced vehicles, and have to keep the specifics to themselves. Like Wes Combs.
“You watch yourself in conversations some time because it is really cool and you want to tell people about it but you can’t tell them.”
Even though he’s loath to admit it, Wes Combs’s work for the military while also going to grad school is making an impact.
“O yeah, I had an interview this morning and got to talk quite a bit about it. And they’re reasonably impressed, I guess.”
The industry is only expected to grow in Oklahoma. Dave Wagie, director of Aerospace Economic Development at Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce, says he’s trying to get the state ready to take advantage of big changes on the way.
“As soon as the FAA starts allowing unmanned vehicles to fly in the national airspace, you’re going to see very, very rapid growth in that industry.”
The FAA currently heavily restricts unmanned aircraft flight, but that’s expected to come down in 2015. State officials say they’re in discussions to bring two more companies to Oklahoma, and expect more soon.
You can follow Ben Allen on Twitter: @BenAllenKOSU