This summer nearly 50 middle school students from across Alaska, including tiny Native Alaskan villages on the remote western coast, gathered at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Over five days while following Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, the teenagers built, tested and flew small drones (unmanned aerial vehicle”).

The students tested their hand-built UAVs with a competition that required them to operate them through an indoor course, pick up an object and bring it back to the starting location.

UAVs are simply aerial robots (which eliminates the risk of human pilot injury or more tragic consequences), powered by one or multiple battery-powered rotors and guided by an operator. The smallest can be covered by one hand (2-inch square Estes Proto X 4606 model) to the largest more than 100 feet long and costing more than $100 million (the U.S. military Predator UAV is as large as manned aircraft).

drone DJI company photo

The U.S. could have as many as 1 million drones for business and consumer use by 2020. Current cost is about $3,000 per unit.

Courtesy: DJI

The other advantages are fuel costs and operations, since a manned aircraft requires good weather and a pilot — a UAV can fly in “bad” weather conditions and can be rapidly deployed. In drought-stricken California, UAV operating costs for wildfire monitoring is under $4 per hour, compared to $250 to $2,000 per hour for manned aircraft (which guzzle expensive aviation fuel).

Two distinct advantages of rotorcraft UAVs are the ability to “hover” and their small size: a quadcopter UAV can explore inside buildings and under bridges (perfect for finding trapped people after a hurricane or earthquake).

UAVs can be deployed for a wide range of applications, with “early adopters” specializing in photography/filmmaking, land surveying/real estate, and conservation (like “counting” whales off Alaska). UAVs are the dawn of myriad applications in disaster management, precision agriculture, and small package delivery.

But why is a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics youth UAV program in the 49th state, with much of its state land mass above the Arctic Circle, so significant to the 50th state?

With a population of barely 750,000, Alaska has embarked on an audacious statewide strategy: make UAVs a major part of its economy, encompassing education, research, and manufacturing/exporting. Alaska’s goal is to become a top global center of unmanned aircraft systems.

Of nearly 600,000 UAVs sold worldwide, the U.S. market was approximately 170,000 units for 2014. The projection for U.S. UAV sales in 2015 is double: 340,000. Calculating a 25 percent annual UAV sales increase for the next five years would result in slightly over 1 million units by 2020 for the U.S.

By the end of 2015, Hawaii (pop. 1.4 million) will have 200 UAVs and by 2020, conservative estimates project 2,000 UAVs.

The majority of UAVs sold for commercial/consumer use are approximately $3,000 per unit (with sensors, game console-like operator unit, and accessories). According to the 2013 “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the U.S.” study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, during the next decade the global UAS industry would rise to nearly $80 billion, and total U.S. new job creation is projected to over 100,000. The leading China-based UAV manufacturer — DJI — has sales projected to be over $1 billion this year – double its 2014 total: It’s analogous to the early days of e-commerce.

Most “hobby” UAVs bought today have a flight time of less than 30 minutes and carry small payloads (digital cameras) of less than one pound (like the Physical Sciences, Inc. Instant Eye, 3D Robotics Solo “Smart Drone,” Parrot AR. Drone, and DJI Phantom models).

With more and more of them in the air, what are the Federal Aviation Administration rules?

The FAA is in the midst of developing operational regulations for UAVs. Under current FAA “recreational UAS guidelines,” individuals can purchase and fly drones for personal hobby use, and cannot accept any money for flying or for images or data from the drone flight – that is, you have to be a hobbyist (like a model airplane enthusiast).

The FAA allows “commercial” use (like filming a Waikiki canoe race and selling the video) under a strict set of regulations, which includes having a licensed pilot on the ground at the controls of the UAV. This is the FAA’s Section 333 exemption and over 1,000 such commercial permits have been issued throughout the U.S.

By the end of 2015 Hawaii will have 200 UAVs and by 2020, conservative estimates project 2,000 UAVs.

As the FAA’s regulations continue to evolve and allow more UAS operators, this new air space industry is attracting many non-aerospace firms, such as high tech consumer firms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon – all exploring the new consumer frontier of unmanned aircraft systems, which leads back to Alaska’s new obsession with UAVs for economic diversification.

This summer’s Alaskan youth “drone” competition reflects the 49th state’s commitment to create a tech-savvy Alaskan generation that will emerge to not only utilize UAVs in coastal mapping or conservation but also to build UAVs to sell to other countries – diversifying the Alaskan economy from oil, natural gas and fisheries.

Alaska is not the first state to prioritize UAVs as the “next big thing” in economic diversification, but it is probably the fastest in planning the unmanned aircraft system for an entire state.

Although Alaska cited Oregon’s five-year head-start – SoarOregon has taken off as a non-profit with the goal of Oregon (pop. 4 million) becoming a “leader in civilian UAS development” — by early 2015, the Alaska state government published the comprehensive “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: An Economic Development Strategy for Alaska” report, which explores the strategic advantages of Alaskan wide open spaces (UAV testing), a Native Alaskan K-12 STEM program (children studying advanced math and building UAVs) and University of Alaska UAV center (students/faculty developing UAS apps, plus start-up support), as well as cataloging U.S. Defense and private sector demand for more UAVs and operators.

Alaska was also home to the nation’s first commercial UAV flight, conducted over the Arctic Ocean by ConocoPhillips. University of Alaska at Fairbanks Chancellor Brian Rogers has described the potential uses of UAVs as “almost limitless.”

How can Hawaii — an isolated mid-Pacific string of tiny islands (in contrast to the largest U.S. state of 660,000 square miles) leverage this “next big thing”?

Next: Taking a cue from Alaska’s emerging UAS eco-system, what would the 50th state’s UAS strategy look like?

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