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An AeroVironment Puma AE, front, and a Raven, both small unmanned aircraft systems, are on display Tuesday at the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

Aviation going to the drones

US, world primed for research into commercial uses

The small unmanned aircraft system, or drone, is being developed for commercial use and could garner as much as $90 billion in industry investments in the next 10 years.

– The next big thing in aviation may be really small.

With some no bigger than a hummingbird, the hottest things at this week’s Farnborough International Airshow are tiny compared to the titans of the sky, such as the Airbus 380 or the Boeing Dreamliner.

What’s got aviation geeks salivating at Farnborough, this year’s biggest aviation jamboree that features participants from 40 countries, are the commercial possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles – drones to most of us.

Drones are more commonly known for their use in conflict areas. This week, Hamas launched for the first time an unmanned drone into Israeli airspace that was shot down.

But drones, which can weigh less than an ounce, have potential commercial applications that are vast. The industry, military and non-military, is growing and could – according to some – see investments of nearly $90 billion over the next 10 years.

Experts say they can be adapted to fly over fields to determine when crops need watering, fly into clouds in hopes of offering more precise predictions on twisters, track endangered rhinos, spot wildfires and search vast stretches of land for missing children.

And like the dawn of the era of aviation a little over a century ago, innovations are often being conducted by individuals with an idea and endless enthusiasm. They won’t find it easy, though, as the big players in the markets, such as Boeing and Airbus, are also getting involved.

A lot of the research has been taking place in big flat places such as the Plains states, where a broad expanse of land combines with universities near military bases with airspace exclusions to make research possible.

Where California had Silicon Valley to drive its high-tech industries, America’s central belt from North Dakota to Texas could become a new research and commercial center for the aviation industry – the Silicon Plains.

“This is open country for entrepreneurs,” said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and technology.

But things are a bit on hold at the moment for the American makers of unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs, as they await rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Under current rules, you can legally fly drones for “recreational purposes,” as long as you comply with certain basic guidelines – such as keeping clear of airports.

Commercial operations are allowed only with special authorization, a cumbersome process that the government intends to streamline. The FAA is developing regulations to permit the widespread commercial use of drones while protecting privacy and preventing interference with larger aircraft. As part of this process, the FAA in December selected six test sites around the country where research on drones will be conducted in a variety of environments.

North Dakota is one of them, and Brian Opp, manager of aerospace business development for the North Dakota Department of Commerce, is at Farnborough, promoting the virtues of the weather. In other words, if your drone can work in the midst of a freezing North Dakota winter or its scorching summer, it will work anywhere.

The Teal Group, which offers analysis of the aviation industry, estimates that $89.1 billion will be spent on drones in the next decade, the bulk of which will still be military.

Those interested in commercial aspects of such vehicles or systems have hesitated to even call their products drones for fear of association with military purposes.

But they seem to be coming around to the fact that drone slips off the tongue a bit easier than unmanned vehicle system.

“I think we need to redefine the word drone,” McKeever said. “The public will embrace it.”

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