Georgia wants to get the ball rolling with drones, believing it is a prime spot to spur innovation. The state has a big aerospace industry with more than 500 companies, 88,000 people working directly in it, and universities to support it, according to Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace.
Georgia was also recently the host of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2015 conference earlier this month.
“Our mission is to grow the aerospace industry in the state,” said Justice.
InterDrone News recently spoke with him to see how Georgia is preparing for a commercial drone industry, how the state will create a commercial environment to move the industry along, and what things they look forward to in the future.
InterDrone News: Why do you think Georgia is the right place for drones?
Justice: I think we have all the right things. We have the largest engineering school in the country; we have a huge technology base; we have a large aviation and aerospace industry already; and we have a great aviation school at Middle Georgia State College. But the biggest things we have are the customers. If you are a company, that is what you want. You have to have workforce, you have to have technology, but you have to have customers, and we have all three here.
So then what needs to happen next to get the drone industry off the ground in the state?
The center is working with local companies to provide the resources needed to obtain their Section 333 exemptions from the FAA—a prerequisite for any commercial activity. We are actively connecting the local UAS community with the various customer groups in the state in cooperation with other divisions of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and the University System of Georgia. We also continue to promote innovation projects to mature the technologies needed, such as “sense and avoid,” to fuel the growth of our local UAS industry.
Has the state experienced any challenges with the FAA’s proposed drone regulations?
The FAA has been involved with us from day one, and they have been very forthright from day one. They told us exactly what their concerns are and where they are going, and we have been the same with them. They have been very good with giving us COAs to fly and we’ve done over 50 COAs in the last few years. We have done a lot of flying. We’ve shared information with the FAA, which helped them.
The FAA has to be more careful because you are working with new vehicles and this very dynamic system. The whole goal in all of this is to not reduce the level of safety, and since you already have a very safe system, that means you have to go very cautiously and step wisely, so we have supported them in Section 333. We did comment on the proposed rules.
And what did those comments include?
The center works very closely with the FAA Southern Regional Office on UASes. The proposed small UAS rules are a good first step toward full integration of UASes in the national airspace system, and we look forward to continuing our efforts with the FAA to educate the various stakeholders within Georgia on the evolving regulatory environment.
How long do you think it will take for the industry to really get off the ground?
Well, we are getting off the ground right now. We have hundreds of companies that have received their Section 333 exemptions. They are just starting that process of operations or seeing if their business model will work, and that is a big question. You are going to have lots of companies, maybe even by the end of the year, that are operating. There are going to be lessons we learn from that, things that work, things that definitely don’t work, and we will need to avoid that. The FAA is going to go through their rule process and come out with the final under-55-pound rule probably in the next 12 to 18 months. Then you have to address over 55 pounds—that is a whole other issue, so there is going to be a lot going on over the next few years in this.
How is the state going to be able to manage all these drones?
That is where technology is really going to come in. A lot of the software now in these systems do geo-fencing, or allow you to fly in certain areas and not others. We are going to tie that software into the information the FAA has like on their app so that you will be able to have right up-to-the-minute information about flight restrictions, temporary flight restrictions, things like that. The vehicle may even have safeguards even though you, the operator, says, “I want to go over there.” It will check against the FAA’s regulations and say, “No you can’t go over there,” so we are going to see the technology interacting with people at a different level and how to keep people from doing things that maybe they shouldn’t do, but also allowing you to do things that manned vehicles can’t do.
And what do you think are the biggest use cases for drones in Georgia?
We always say if you are going to have a commercial business, you need one big thing: customers. So you want to be somewhere where you have people who will use your product. In this case, unmanned systems [in] agriculture is a big area. Georgia is a huge agriculture state. Agriculture accounts for $75 billion a year of economic impact in the state of Georgia. One of our first projects was imaging cotton and peanut fields using helicopter UAVs, and the reason for that is we’ve grow over $4 billion of peanuts in this state every year. If we can help them improve their yield 1%, 1% of $4 billion is real money, and then now you multiply that over cotton, blueberries, pecans, peaches... Now you are seeing the impact.