States are competing to be the Silicon Valley of drones

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.

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