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The Army's Oklahoma UAV superhighway

Over the past few years, the military services have been frustrated as commanders' demand for unmanned aerial vehicles has often exceeded engineers' abilities to build and test them. Part of that frustration has come from wrangling with domestic aviation authorities about when and where you can fly a pilotless vehicle over the U.S. -- DoD wants to try out its new toys, but the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies get nervous about drones mixing in with civil and commercial traffic. That's why organizers in Oklahoma want to set up a dedicated UAV preserve, as it were, where drones can roam free anytime.

According to a story by Steve Metzer in Oklahoma's Lawton Constitution (which was picked up by the Army) officials with DoD, Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma state government want to set up an "air corridor," just for UAVs, connecting Fort Sill to a local airport. The military would benefit from a new, bigger training box, and Oklahomans hope that will attract aerospace and defense jobs, the way New Mexico got into the space game with its commercial launch site.

Wrote Metzer:

If the corridor becomes a reality, it would be the only one in the U.S. in which UAVs would be allowed to routinely fly at higher altitudes without special permission through airspace controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. It also would represent an important next step in Oklahoma’s quest to become a key player in the rapidly expanding industry of UAVs and unmanned aerial systems.

Stephen McKeever is Oklahoma’s secretary of science and technology and also the executive director of the Oklahoma State University Multispectral Laboratory (UML), the organization that worked with the Defense Department in 2006 to locate a UAV-dedicated airport in Lawton-Fort Sill. In emailed responses to questions posed by The Lawton Constitution, he described an industry poised for “exponential growth” with great potential to attract investment and jobs.

“I think Lawton citizens can expect to see new UAV-related companies establishing a presence in Oklahoma in general and in the Lawton area in particular as our facilities become more widely known and as the UAV industry grows,” McKeever said.

Metzer continues:
“The corridor is part of an overall plan in which OSU and the UML are working in partnership with the FAA to use UAVs to assist the FAA in testing electronic instrument landing systems at all commercial airports in the U.S. and elsewhere,” he said. “The (certificates of authorization) will help, ultimately, to open the national airspace to unmanned vehicle flights.”The FAA has been mandated to come up with a strategy by 2015 for opening up the national airspace to UAVs.

As the industry expands, McKeever said, it’s hoped that the Oklahoma air corridor might be used for testing of other types of UAVs and UAV technologies.

“All together, this is part of Oklahoma’s plan to develop the infrastructure within the state in a coordinated fashion to attract UAV manufacturers to use Oklahoma as the center of their test and evaluation plans,” he said. “Truly exponential growth will happen when U.S. airspace is opened to UAVs.”

McKeever said the planned corridor does not cross flight paths or other commercial airways, and UAV flights along the corridor would have no impact on training at Fort Sill.

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