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U.S. Senators John Hoeven and Cory Booker introduced legislation in May 2015 that they hope could lead to broader use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) - systems that include the support and control of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones.

“We’re on the frontier of a whole new era of aviation, when remotely piloted aircraft will improve crop production, provide valuable aid for first responders and even deliver packages to our doorstep,” said Senator John Hoeven.

Hoeven and Booker co-sponsored the Commercial UAS Modernization Act (S. 1314). The legislation would set interim safety rules and help speed up the process for commercial users seeking to fly small unmanned aircraft. In addition, the bill would give the Federal Aviation Administration more authority in rule-making and the flexibility to make changes in the final regulatory rule, as necessary.

“There is so much potential that can be unlocked if we lay the proper framework to support innovation in unmanned aircraft systems,” said Senator Cory Booker.

The legislation is supported by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Small UAV Coalition, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The Emergence of Drones Means Big Business in the Coming Decade

AUVSI estimates the UAS industry could represent an $82 billion segment of the U.S. economy and generate more than 100,000 new high-paying technical jobs within a decade after integration.

“The sooner we allow the broader use of this technology, the more quickly the U.S. will realize the many societal and economic benefits of UAS,” AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne said.

According to Onvia’s Spending Forecast Center data, cities are beginning to recognize that potential and have already taken steps to become leaders in the field of UAS.

City leaders in Grand Forks, North Dakota—Senator Hoeven’s home state—are working with local Air Force officials, who are producing new defensive strategies and capabilities related to UASs. The Air Force is also forging relationships with the University of North Dakota’s aviation school, start-up companies, and well-known aviation companies.

City of Grand Forks in North Dakota
 
The City’s adopted fiscal 2014-2019 budget supports the development of Grand Sky a new business and aviation park, “which is part of the state’s push to become an industry hub for unmanned aerial systems.”
 
The agency aims to increase its promotion of aerospace-related industries, such as UAS research and development, in fiscal year 2016. Already, OSIDA has signed joint agreements with the U.S. Air Force for use of its facilities, and the FAA has recognized it as the only space flight corridor in the National Airspace System. One of OSIDA programs is interfacing with the governor’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Council.
City of Makato in Minnesota
 
The City’s adopted 2015 budget contrasts pro-business UAV efforts with an emphasis on monitoring state and national hot topics that can affect local communities—including privacy concerns related to UAVs. City officials wrote in the budget that they will “keep current on these issues and the impact they can have on businesses and citizens.”

Unmanned Flight in the Classroom

Universities and higher education institutions want in on the action too through research and development. Data from Onvia’s Project Center revealed that since 2013 state and local governments have issued 95 bids & RFPs explicitly related to UASs, 28% of which were for educational functions—with the majority coming from in higher education institutions.

 
Released a bid in April 2015 to buy at least four rotary-wing and flex-wing UASs. The solicitation could lead to a six-year contract with the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation. LSUASC established its test site because of an FAA initiative to integrate UASs into the national airspace.
 
Approved $882,000 for the Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence—a new initiative included in its 2013-2015 legislatively adopted budget. The funding comes through the Oregon InC Innovation Plan, which offers support for entrepreneurs in cutting-edge areas of business.

On the Ground Floor

While cities want to be leaders in the field and others are concerned about privacy, state agencies have already begun purchasing UASs.

 
Issued a bid in March 2015 for six-year contract for a small UAS (sUAS). Among a long list of specifics, officials want a system that can take off vertically, hover and stare mid-air, provide a real-time visual feed on a defined global positioning system position, and have at least a 45-minute flight time. The department’s Special Operations Division will use the sUAS in both densely populated and rural areas.
 
Requested Ohio-based universities to submit proposals to conduct an operational assessment of perimeter security, which includes UAS capabilities, for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections in an October 2014 bid. The goal is to check on the security tools the department uses in and around correctional facilities.

Key Takeaways for Contractors

State and local governments are intrigued by the possibilities of UASs. Universities want to become centers of excellence, and cities are partnering with the military and other industry leaders to become hubs for the market.

Businesses who sell technology products and services that may be related to UASs should watch for the emerging industry leaders and also follow aviation authorities’ strategic decisions to position themselves to get a leg-up on the competition for UAS related bids & RFPs. One way to stay abreast of leaders is following what organizations get FAA approvals to use UASs in the national airspace. Businesses should also monitor all bids & RFPs for opportunities and research upcoming agency plans with Onvia.