The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

States are competing to be the Silicon Valley of drones

States where proposals have been submitted for the FAA UAS test sites. (FAA)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is poised to select six locations as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) test sites. And states are pulling out the stops to convince the agency to let them host one of them.

Wyoming, North Carolina, Utah, Ohio, Minnesota, Oklahoma and North Dakota all had booths at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's (AUVSI) drone conference in Washington last week -- and some of them were quite lavish.

Ohio was giving away cookies shaped like the state. North Dakota and Oklahoma both had huge booths that included semi-enclosed meeting areas. Utah had a large inflatable snow yeti holding a model of a drone designed in-state. All this to convince the crowd, and ultimately the FAA, that their corner of America is on the verge of becoming the Silicon Valley of drones.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the agency to select six UAS test sites to study the safety of UAS and certify commercial drones for use in the national airspace. The competition is fierce because the test sites hold the potential to create thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue, not counting the profits from commercial applications that will be tested at the sites.

The FAA received 25 applications from 24 states for the six spots earlier this year and is expected to make a decision in December.

The booths were only part of the states' appeals: Political figures came out in force to promote their states. North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R) gave a brief speech on Tuesday, while Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) toured the exhibit hall with press in tow Wednesday.

Turner cited Ohio's Air Force research lab and the state's NASA presence among the factors that make the state a good fit for one of the test sites.

"This is an emerging technology and it's going to have a number of economic impacts," he said, adding that Ohio's "traditional manufacturing bases will become suppliers for the UAS chain."

Wrigley also has high hopes for UAS technology. But he believes North Dakota has staked a claim in the space, claiming the state is "already on the leading edge" of evaluating drones for agriculture, search and rescue, and inspecting infrastructure like pipelines for oil, gas, water, and power lines.

"It's not a brand new sector" he said. He said that it is growing rapidly, raising important issues for public policy and a variety of business interests. While many states are recovering from the recession, North Dakota has enjoyed the fastest growing economy in the country -- largely thanks to an oil and gas boom.

"It's not because we need another group of jobs, but it does add to the diversification of our economy," Wrigley said. But Wrigley believes North Dakota is "uniquely situated" to host one of the sites due to its weather extremes, sparse population, an international border, and its established drone policy infrastructure.

Part of that established infrastructure is already having a system to examine the privacy implications of drone technology. Wrigley leads a privacy compliance committee that vets all drone testing in the state for legal, moral, ethical and constitutional issues.

That committee even includes input from clergy. "We have a pretty strong libertarian streak up here" Wrigley said, and just because something is constitutional "doesn't mean it's something you want to have going on in your state all the time."

Stephen McKeever, secretary for Science and Technology for the state of Oklahoma, also stressed the importance of taking into account the privacy implications of drone technology testing, but emphasizes the need for nuance in the debate: "We are supportive of an informed discussion about this whole business, not simply a little paranoid on the privacy issue nor getting carried on the societal benefits of the applications, but to have the middle ground -- that's where this discussion should be taking place."

Many states argue their higher education systems are poised to make a UAS test site a success. The University of North Dakota is home to a Center for UAS Research, Education & Training and claims to have established the first four-year UAS degree, while McKeever cites Oklahoma as the home of the only UAS engineering graduate program in the country.

In most cases, the selection of an FAA test site could mean dramatic changes for local economies and a way for more rural areas to gain a technological edge. For example, Kris Cahoon Noble, a county planner/economic developer from Hyde County, N.C. sees it as an opportunity to promote an underutilized airport and bring new precision agriculture techniques to the attention of local farmers.

Representatives at the Wyoming booth thought drone tech could help with animal counting and searching for people lost in the wilderness -- both important to a state with vast expanses of land and more animals than humans.

But even if not selected as FAA test sites, many planned to continue to develop their drone economies independently. This is "the next significant growth in aerospace" said Alan Palmer, director of the Center for UAS Research, Education & Training at the University of North Dakota. "We think we have a strong proposal -- if we're designated that's great, if not that's okay too because we're going to continue doing what we're doing."