Arizona can lead nationally in drone testing, production

The future of aerospace lies in an Arizona State University lab, a warehouse at Boeing’s Mesa plant and a building filled with computer monitors at Fort Huachuca.

We’re talking about drones — or, more importantly, the technology required to fly them and potential uses they represent. Unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, as those in the industry call them, can be used to monitor wildfires, track the growth rate of crops and spot mechanical flaws in bridges. They can do it longer, cheaper and more accurately than human eyes.

And, if we play our cards right, Arizona could be the epicenter for their manufacture and research. That would be big business, the kind our state needs to remain an aerospace powerhouse in an era of changing technologies and defense-spending cuts.

5 steps to become a leader in drones

Worldwide spending on unmanned aircraft is expected to reach $5.2 billion in 2014, according to one industry report, growing to $11.6 billion in 2023. Another study projects that the commercialization of UAS will lead to the creation of 104,000 jobs nationwide by 2025.

A healthy chunk — an estimated 4,000 jobs and $414 million in economic impact — is expected to go to Arizona, putting it in the top five states to benefit.

There are multiple reasons for that: We have perfect flying weather and multiple military test ranges, not to mention the world’s largest UAS training program at Fort Huachuca. Multiple manufacturers are producing not only the craft, but the necessary sensors and computer systems to fly them without a pilot in the cockpit.

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