I recently attended the 2014 Association for Unmanned Vehicles International in Orlando, Florida, and found that the future may be much closer than we think, opening opportunities for entrepreneurs to enter the aerospace industry.
The unmanned aerial vehicle market has been dominated by defense applications, but according to economic analysis done by the conference organizers, the market for unmanned systems could grow to over $82 billion and create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years.
Unmanned vehicles are already being used in precision agriculture, search and rescue operations, 3-D mapping and the film industry. Innovative uses are coming to market continually with new vehicles and payloads. Research is moving forward in using unmanned technology for infrastructure inspection, retail delivery, oil and gas exploration, wildfire mapping, airborne Wi-Fi access and many other applications.
Unfortunately, the industry is hampered in United States by the lack of regulation from the Federal Aviation Administration. According to Krista Ochs, a senior program manager for General Dynamics Unmanned systems division, the FAA is suffering from “analysis paralysis,” making no decisions on how UAVs are to be regulated.
As a result, most commercial operation of UAVs violates regulations governing the national airspace. By the end of next year, the FAA has said it will have at least draft regulations for review by the public.
However the lack of clear regulation has not stopped entrepreneurs from developing innovative new products and systems. While the AUVSI trade show was dominated by large defense contractors and commercial aerospace companies such as Boeing and Northrup Grumman, the “Start Up Pavilion” provided an opportunity for small companies to showcase their innovations.
North Dakota startup Field of View developed a system to integrate geo-positioning data with images taken from virtually any off-the-shelf camera. Designed for primarily for agricultural applications, the data allows farmers to rapidly identify problems with crops and take corrective action.
The Oklahoma Department of Commerce showcased an inexpensive UAV designed to track livestock using visual and RFID technologies. The entrepreneur built the vehicle with parts ordered from the Internet for less than $8,000.
There is even a book available on Amazon titled “Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start.”.
Washington manufacturers were well represented at the event, though the UAV sector is centered in the southern part of our state. Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary based in Bingen, Kickitat County, produces a wide range of UAVs primarily for defense contractors. Sagetech, the producer of the world’s smallest aircraft transponder, is located in nearby White Salmon.
Here in Snohomish County, the aerospace economy is dominated by the production of large commercial airliners. However, many of the same skills needed to design, build and maintain complex aircraft like the 787 can translate into creating vehicles and payloads for the unmanned sector.
One has to wonder what great innovations in unmanned vehicles are taking shape in a garage near you.
Ryan Davis is the dean of the Business and Workforce Education department at Everett Community College.
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