Aerospace leaders partner to propel unmanned aircraft systems, aerospace technologies and applications forward

Jan. 6, 2014
Great aerospace minds are partnering to propel unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and aerospace technologies and applications forward, describes Dr. Stephen W.S. McKeever, Secretary of Science & Technology for the State of Oklahoma. 


  • NAME: Dr. Stephen W.S. McKeever
  • TITLE: Secretary of Science & Technology
  • CO.: State of Oklahoma
  • ROLE: Bolster Oklahoma’s aerospace industry

Great aerospace minds are partnering to propel unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and aerospace technologies and applications forward.

Why are regions, including Oklahoma, taking a proactive approach to unmanned systems, especially unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), with academia, government, and commercial and military technology firms joining forces?

The intent from the beginning was to present the effort as a statewide initiative. This was natural because the state’s main industry sectors (oil & gas, aerospace, agriculture, defense and security) will all directly benefit from development of the UAS industry. The benefits of this approach are that the UAS industry segments in Oklahoma, that otherwise may not have collaborated, are now working in partnership. Funding goals are prioritized, and UAS has become a state priority at multiple levels, including state politics, the private sector, and the education and research sectors.

Is it true that Oklahoma is currently a hub of UAS activity, with global firms opening offices or partnering with local organizations?

Yes. Several of the major aerospace corporations have recently located here or are in discussions about partnering, expanding or locating in Oklahoma. In addition, there are currently about 15 existing and active UAS businesses. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Defense (DOD) have strong, continuing programs within the state for test and evaluation purposes. Economic developers are being attracted to this market segment and investors are likewise paying attention to what is happening in the state. All are consequences of the state’s leadership and statewide approach.

What segments are significantly increasing adoption of UAS? Are new uses arising?

Current activities include UAS application in: fire and rescue, disaster response, precision agriculture, power line inspections, oil & gas pipeline inspection, severe weather studies (e.g., tornado prediction), homeland security research & development (including test & evaluation of existing technology and development of new technology for first responders and for border patrol), defense and military test & evaluation (also including the development of new technology), research into platform design, autonomous systems, telemetry, sense and avoid, radars and, of course, education.

In addition to progress in all of the above areas, we are establishing several centers for operations for UAS. At Tinker Business and Industrial Park (TBIP), Oklahoma is establishing the Unmanned Systems Innovation Center. TBIP is a business park located next to the Tinker Air Force base, and specializes in private sector UAS interests. Tinker AFB will be performing maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) on the engines for the Reaper and the Global Hawk, with General Atomics and Rolls Royce, respectively.

Oklahoma State University (OSU) and its partner, the University Multispectral Laboratories (UML), have collaborated to create the Unmanned Systems Development Center (UDC) at the Oklahoma Technology and Research Park in Stillwater. The UDC is a Research and Development laboratory focused on UAS technology, from design and concept, to production and testing. All aspects of UAS will be considered, including telemetry, autonomous systems, and sensors. Students from OSU will interact with engineers from the UML in this collaboration. The facility has the capability for proprietary work in an off-campus, secure lab devoted to UAS R&D and testing. A primary goal is to create interactions and partnerships with government agencies and with the private sector for UAS development. The UDC is currently being equipped and will be fully operational over the next few months, and is part of a strategy to grow a technology-based economy focused on Unmanned Systems in central Oklahoma.

The UML also runs and operates the Oklahoma Test Center – Unmanned Systems near Lawton, OK, for UAS flight test and evaluation for defense and homeland security purposes; recent improvement include the design of a new runway (to be completed soon).

We will be establishing the central management office for the FAA UAS Test Center (if selected) at the Oklahoma Air and Space Port at Burns Flat, OK. This too is an industrial park associated with aerospace and already has in place all necessary infrastructure to assist the development of the UAS industry.

Where do current attentions lie?

Current Oklahoma attentions with respect to applications are in agriculture, oil & gas, utility power lines, and severe storm studies. Other ongoing efforts are in radar development, platform design for specialist operations (e.g. long endurance, silent flight), autonomous systems, and aeronautical education with a specialty is UAS design. The most immediate niches and early adopters of this technology will be in first response and agriculture, with the energy industry not far behind.

What does the future hold related to UAS in Oklahoma, the nation, and the world?

As with any new technology, especially transformational technology such as this, applications will be found in areas that we cannot currently imagine. Nevertheless even now people have thought of:

  • Biomimicry – embedding biologically inspired remote systems in nature to observe animal behavior;
  • Tracking of animal migration patterns;
  • General Security – for site security;
  • Radar Research – testing the limits of radar in detection, avoidance, and stealth operations;
  • Climatologically – weather and atmospheric sciences;
  • Public Safety – security at large public events and gatherings;
  • Surveillance – use of monitoring technologies for security and policing for local law enforcement and border control agencies;
  • Communication – to extend communication range and bandwidth;
  • Aeronautics – to optimize and innovate flight dynamics and design;
  • Materials – testing of new materials and composites;
  • Propulsion – testing of new propulsion design and technologies;
  • Power – battery and power source technologies;
  • Acoustics – noise control, transmission and acoustic technology;
  • Structures – unconventional design and configuration testing;
  • Cyber Security – wireless security;
  • Oil & Gas – scanning of pipelines for damage and leaks as well as exploration;
  • Sensors – carrying sensor technology for a wide range of uses in monitoring and testing weather events, water management, data gathering;
  • Nanotechnology;
  • Crop Management – testing and monitoring and crop dusting/maintenance;
  • Forestry – monitoring wildfires and potential hazards;
  • Traffic – monitoring and optimization of roadways and traffic patterns;
  • Journalism – the technology enables reporters to get closer to their story;
  • Search and Rescue;
  • Monitoring drought and water patterns;
  • Feature film making.

What advice would you offer current or future UAS engineers, engineering managers, executives, or business owners?

For students considering UAS as a career, take as many science and math courses at high school as you can. At university, enter a program in which there is direct hands-on experience with building and operating UAS. Choose established university programs, and not some of the newer on-line programs. For the business sector, be on the look-out for the utility of UAS for your businesses. This technology is transformational in that it will allow businesses to do things safer, cheaper and faster, with overall less risk. Pay attention to state laws, some of which can be restrictive for UAS operations and concentrate on those states with favorable state regulations.

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