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Kansas eager to jump into the unmanned aircraft industry

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 6:58 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 9:25 a.m.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Do you think Wichita will develop into a major player in the unmanned aircraft industry?


Kansas players

Among those involved in unmanned aircraft in the state are the following:

• Great Plains Training Center

• Salina Airport Authority

• Crisis City

• Kansas State University-Salina

• National Institute for Aviation Research

• University of Kansas

• Pulse Aerospace, Lawrence

• Flint Hills Solutions, Augusta

• Fat Head Solutions, Augusta

• Hangar 18, Wichita

• Ag Eagle, Neodesha

Source: Kansas Department of Commerce; companies

Jimmy Prouty, owner of Hangar 18, designs and builds small, unmanned aircraft systems for the agricultural industry in his spare time from his basement in northwest Wichita.

And once the Federal Aviation Administration establishes regulations governing the small aircraft, Prouty is poised to grow quickly.

He may open a production facility and a store.

“This is going to explode once it finally happens,” Prouty said.

Roger Powers, president and CEO of sister companies Flint Hills Solutions and Fat Head Solutions, agrees.

The two Augusta-based companies offer unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) products, equipment and services.

Powers plans to double the size of his 12-member staff in coming months. And he’s ready to grow to 200 people in the next three to five years.

“That’s our business plan,” Powers said. “We’re positioning the company so that when the lid comes off in the 2015 horizon, we’re going to be first to market.”

A new study forecasts that Kansas will create 2,515 high-paying jobs in the unmanned aircraft industry from 2015 to 2017 once the small aircraft are integrated into the national airspace system through federal planning and regulations.

Beyond 2017, another 3,716 jobs are expected to be created in the state by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The total economic impact to Kansas is expected to exceed $2.94 billion, the study said.

“The economic impact the UAS industry will have for Kansas is immeasurable,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in a statement. “This news underscores the fact that Kansas is making incredible progress in UAS’ emerging aviation enterprise.”

The FAA has a lot to do to make sure UAS is properly incorporated and accounted for in the national airspace, Moran said.

“But the future for UAS in Kansas — the Air Capital of the World – is bright,” he said.

According to the study, job projections are based on current activity in the state and include direct and indirect manufacturing jobs.

In addition, Kansas is expected to benefit from tax revenue totaling more than $29.13 million in the first decade following the integration into airspace, according to the AUVSI.

Nationwide, the study predicts creation of 103,776 jobs from 2015 to 2025.

Many jobs will gravitate to states with favorable regulatory structures and infrastructure, the organization said.

Future events, such as the establishment of FAA test sites, will determine where many of the new jobs will go, it said.

Salaries are expected to start at about $55,000 a year and some potentially could pay $100,000 or more a year, the AUVSI said.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for an industry developing technology that will benefit society, as well as the economy,” Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI, said in a statement. “Integrating UAS into the national airspace will lead to new and expanded uses, which means the creation of quality, high-paying jobs in Kansas.”

The state already has a variety of capabilities and expertise in the UAS industry in place.

It’s involved through government operations and airspace and through college and university research, testing and training.

A number of companies in the Wichita area and around Kansas are involved in the engineering and design of airframes, systems and payload integration, flight operation and training, simulations and modeling and in-flight controls and autopilots, according to a report by the Kansas Department of Commerce.

“This is the unique combination of advantages that establishes Kansas as the ideal location for the development of unmanned aerial systems,” the report said.

Tom Aldag, director of research and development at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research, said the UAS industry is in its infancy.

NIAR has done a range of research and testing for the industry, such as aerodynamic testing of Boeing’s Scan Eagle Compressed Carriage and Raytheon’s Small Diameter Bomb, structural testing for Boeing’s UCAS and evaluation of unmanned aerial vehicle operator stations for General Atomics. It also can assist manufacturers with the development of aerodynamic characteristics, appropriate materials, susceptibility to environmental factors, computational analysis and advanced coatings applications, NIAR said.

“I think we’re in a great place for UAS opportunities,” Aldag said of Kansas. “We’ve got airspace we can operate them in. We’ve got research (with) K-State, KU and WSU. (And) we’ve got industry that’s starting to pop up around us.”

High-tech farming

In the future, the precision agriculture industry is expected to be the largest market for UAS technology, the AUVSI industry found.

Unmanned aerial systems will help farmers monitor crops and distribute pesticides by delivering precise amounts of pesticides needed in specific locations.

That will save farmers money, increase yields and reduce the environmental impact, the study said.

Prouty, with Hangar 18, specializes in light aircraft with a 6-foot wing span and designed around a camera system for vertical photography.

Using infrared photography, the photos show farmers the status of their crops and help them know how much fertilizer to put down where, Prouty said.

The aircraft stay in sight and fly no higher than 400 feet above the ground on a pre-programmed path. An operator can take manual control of it.

Prouty builds the planes by hand and sells them to the end users.

“I buy as many Kansas-made products as I can,” he said.

Prouty doesn’t advertise. And while he hasn’t sold a lot of aircraft, “it’s been steady,” he said.

He’s “laying low” for now until the FAA works out the regulations.

Tom Nichol operates a similar business called Ag Eagle, based in Neodesha, producing what he calls “aerial imaging platforms” — light aircraft with a wingspan of less than 5 feet and a weight of less than 12 pounds.

The company is in the research and development mode and refining the airframe and software.

“We hope to be selling them soon,” said Bret Chilcott, Ag Eagle’s head of business development.

They’re a piece of flying farm equipment, Nichol said.

Today, farmers and agronomists can physically inspect only a small portion of their fields at one time.

But the electric-powered Ag Eagle can photograph 600 acres in about 20 to 30 minutes, Nicol said.

To inspect an area, the operator takes the system out of the truck and opens a laptop computer and “mission planner” software.

The operator then clicks on a box to select an inspection area, releases the catapult launcher, and the aircraft flies a pre-programmed mission capturing photos of the field.

He can see the aircraft and monitor its progress and its position. A radio control transmitter allows the operator to take the controls if needed.

Near Infrared Images can detect levels of chlorophyl in the leaves, which could provide information on the health of plants.

The equipment pinpoints the GPS coordinates of what has been photographed, so farmers can go to the spot where the photo was taken and physically inspect the plants.

The Ag Eagle costs about $6,000, which includes training on operating them.

One farmer told Chilcott the equipment would have saved him from an outbreak of cutworms, which destroyed a square mile of wheat.

He said that when cutworm season is here, “they would probably be flying every day looking for them,” Chilcott said.

Unmanned aerial systems are also used in a wide range of industries, as well as by the military.

They can be used to inspect bridges or wind turbines, help spot forest fires or provide surveillance.

“I don’t think we know of all the possibilities for UAS uses,” said NIAR’s Aldag. “I think it’s one of those things. We’ll start using it, and they will find more and more uses all the time.”

User-friendly rules

Success will depend on the regulations adopted by the FAA, business operators say.

Approached one way, regulations will foster growth in the industry, especially with smaller unmanned aircraft, which are better suited for commercial use, they say.

But regulations that limit use and prove onerous for industry could hinder or cut off growth for businesses.

If legislation is favorable, “we have a potential to hire a lot of people,” said Nichol, with Ag Eagle.

The FAA has set a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline for full integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, according to the AUVSI.

Congress has required the agency to come up with an integration plan for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed in February, creates a number of benchmarks, including the establishment of six test sites around the country for testing and development of UAS.

Powers, with Flint Hills Solutions, is optimistic that the rules for smaller unmanned systems will be similar to the hobby rules for radio-controlled helicopters — keeping them three miles from an airport or notifying the airport if they’re near one, avoiding densely populated areas and staying below 400 feet from the ground, he said.

There’s a big effort to make sure the public is safe once unmanned aircraft are integrated into the airspace, said NIAR’s Aldag.

The FAA must decide who gets to fly them, Aldag said, whether it’s “a 14-year-old kid who can run a Xbox, or does it need to be a pilot.”

If the FAA adopts regulations that govern the manufacturer of a Cessna 182 or a Learjet or Citation jet and the operator must have a pilot’s license, “that would kill the industry,” Nichol said.

Perception problems

The public often has a misguided perception of unmanned aerial systems.

“Everybody is mongering about drones flying overhead,” Prouty said. “Everybody thinks drones and thinks missiles that blow people up.”

Some people also are concerned unmanned aerial systems will be flying around their neighborhoods spying.

“We’ve been painted with the same brush,” said Nichol with Ag Eagle. “It’s like saying that a guy who’s a pilot spraying his fields — a crop duster — would be equated with a fighter pilot.”

The U.S. is behind other parts of the world in developing the industry.

Australia and Canada already have rules in place, said Prouty.

If the U.S. doesn’t act quickly, the Europeans will beat the U.S. to market, Nichol said. And “we’ll be twiddling our thumbs saying we wish we would have done something.”

“We believe in this technology,” Nichol said. “It’s about to explode. … We want to jump on this now.”

Aldag agrees.

The industry in Kansas is just waiting for the government to develop the regulations, so businesses will know where they stand, what they can do, and the rules by which they will need to work, those involved say.

“It seems like it’s just busting at the seams ready to go,” Aldag said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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