Census Uncovers the U.S. “Drone Belt”

This article is generously cross-posted from Future Tense on Slate.com. Be sure to attend DARC  for a chance to meet the authors of this article; they will be expand upon these ideas during their talk.

Image created by Victoria Veluz

Image created by Victoria Veluz

Drones deliver your tacos! Drones walk your kid to school! Behind the headline-grabbing news, a complex ecosystem of industry, legislation, community groups, and research powers the exponential growth in drones.

In order to better understand all of this interconnected activity, Deloitte GovLab, where we work as consultants, decided to conduct a “drone census.” We gathered data on stakeholders driving the drone movement, including: members of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus; do-it-yourself drone groups; American universities researching drone technology; state-by-state unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)legislation; past Certificate of Authorization applicants who applied to the FAA for permission to operate UAVs; and corporate members of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International—a major UAV industry group.

The map is on the New America Foundation’s Drone U website. What was discovered was revealing and promising, so let’s peel away the layers:

  • The political drone belt: The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus aims to educate members of Congress on the value of unmanned technologies. The caucus currently has 48 House members (39 Republicans and 9 Democrats) who represent nearly 35.5 million Americans. In addition, 41 state legislatures have become involved in the drone debate and have proposed or passed drone legislation, covering everything from privacy to safety.
  • The drone bowl—rural vs. urban universities: Much of the innovation in the non-military applications of drones is occurring at academic institutions. Not surprisingly, we discovered that universities in the rural areas, especially in the Midwest, are focused on drone applications relating to the environment (example: Utah State University’s research on wetland mapping and wildlife tracking), while universities near urban centers are more focused on technology that makes drones more agile and maneuverable (like Carnegie Mellon University’s sense-and-avoid systems).
  • From India to Iowa: Similar to the garage startups that resulted in the personal computer boom, the next great leap in drone applications may come from hobbyists experimenting in their backyards. DIY groups help hobbyists purchase materials, assemble drones, and learn from one another. The 81 DIY groups we identified come from 18 countries; however, this figure is likely a low estimate given the decentralized nature of the DIY movement.
  • The next drone frontier: As technology continues to improve and become more affordable, drone use is expanding outside of the military into civilian government agencies. Of the 241 COA applicants, 116 (48 percent) were either from civilian agencies or universities, indicating a shift in demand toward non-military application of the technology.
  • A bullish Rust Belt: Eager to tap into a potential $89 billion market, the Rust Belt states are home to 64 AUVSI member corporations and 34 COA applicants. The states of Ohio, New York, and Michigan have all applied to host FAA UAV test sites with the hope of luring future UAV jobs. Ohio alone is home to 15 COA applicants.
  • A new gold rush: The combination of Bay Area tech brain power and Southern California military brawn make California arguably the most active state in the drone ecosystem. With seven Unmanned Systems Caucus members, including Chairman Buck McKeon, 80 AUVSI member companies, 22 COA applicants, and 15 DIY groups, California is the current leader in the UAV marketplace.
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Drone census map from DroneU.org.

While the public has been focused on drone use abroad targeting terrorists, the technology landed in our backyards and is poised to transform our skies. We’ve laid out our findings in the DroneU census map. However, we want to hear from you: What trends do you see happening in your neighborhood and what are we missing?

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