Report shows Okla. poised for aerospace job growth

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News,Science and Technology

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma is well positioned to become a leader in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, with the possibility of nearly 600 new jobs and a $57.6 million economic impact by 2017, Gov. Mary Fallin and aerospace officials said Wednesday.

Citing details from an industry-commissioned study, Fallin said the state is projected to create 593 jobs from 2015 to 2017 after the Federal Aviation Administration completes a plan to integrate drones into U.S. airspace.

The study, which has not been released, was commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and conducted by Darryl Jenkins, an aviation industry economist and former professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

"UAS represents one of the fastest growing segments of the aerospace industry, which already is an important part of the Oklahoma economy," Fallin said. "We are taking the steps necessary to create an environment conducive to job creation and investment that also positions Oklahoma as a national leader in the advancement of UAS technology."

Fallin's secretary of technology, Stephen McKeever, said programs already have been developed at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to train students in the field. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has established a test facility for unmanned aerial vehicles in Elgin that takes advantage of unrestricted air space at Fort Sill.

McKeever said several of Oklahoma's top industries, including agriculture, oil and gas production, and weather research, also are prime targets for the commercial application of drones. He added that public safety agencies likely would be the first commercial consumers of the technology, which can be particularly useful in search-and-rescue operations and to survey disaster scenes after violent weather like tornadoes or flooding.

But there are some skeptics who worry the law enforcement applications of unmanned aerial vehicles and how they could be used to monitor citizens.

Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Oklahoma chapter, said he is working with lawmakers to develop restrictions on how law enforcement can use drones.

"While there are plenty of good uses for domestic drones, like searching for a missing child in the woods, we anticipate that outside of those emergency situations, that law enforcement should be required to get a probable cause warrant before they use these for surveillance purposes," Kiesel said. "While the industry in and of itself and the use of drones isn't problematic across the board, I think that it would be wise of the Legislature to take a look at this issue and put some privacy protections in place now rather than waiting until law enforcement have acquired drones and are using them in Oklahoma."

McKeever said surveillance is not a primary application for law enforcement, but he acknowledged that there are some legitimate concerns about how the drones can be used.

"We take this issue very seriously, and I think these are very reasonable concerns that any reasonable citizen would raise," he said.

Fallin also said she would not be opposed to putting in place policies that protect the privacy of individual citizens.

"First and foremost, we're not interested in spying on anyone, and we're going to do everything we can to protect the privacy and security of individuals in our state," she said.

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Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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