BROKEN ARROW — Oklahoma State University graduate student Ben Loh informally calls his invention the “Death Star,” a spherical hovering drone that can land on any surface and is specialized for indoor use.
“I’ll graduate in May, and I’m already working with OSU on starting my own company,” said Loh, a doctorate candidate studying aerospace engineering. “There are a lot of different types of UAVs out there, but I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
With a camera mounted on the bottom, Loh’s unmanned aerial vehicle can maneuver through hoops using a remote control and is even programmed with a thermal imaging camera and a Bluetooth adapter that can send signals back to an app.
For Oklahoma, UAVs such as Loh’s are closer than distant battlefields or sci-fi movies.
Loh was showing off his creation Friday at the Unmanned Aerial Systems Oklahoma Summit at Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, where technology enthusiasts from across the state and nation gathered to discuss the immediate future of drone technology.
“There are 18 companies right now in Oklahoma working on drone technology, in fields from agriculture to energy,” said James Grimsley, president of UAS-OK.
Drones have been used for years in military applications, notably the Predator aircraft that provide surveillance and lethal attacks overseas on people deemed terrorist threats by the U.S.
But entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how best to move the technology to American skies and profitable commercialization, even as federal authorities move slowly on their regulation.
To date the Federal Aviation Administration allows the use of unmanned aerial systems only for limited hobbyist use. Commercial application is prohibited, except in some designated areas.
Oklahoma lost out on a bid in December to be one of six “test” states sanctioned by the FAA for expanded use of UAVs.
“Right now the FAA wants data,” Grimsley said. “These test sites should move the industry forward as we get more information on unmanned aerial systems.”
The private sector is eager to put drones into use. Grimsley said the technology has the potential to create a lot of jobs, not just in manufacturing but in programming routes for the aircraft and developing sensors and surveillance equipment, and digesting data.
The industry had a “watershed” moment in December, Grimsley said, when Amazon.comInc. CEO Jeff Bezos went on “60 Minutes” and said the company wanted to start using multirotor drones to deliver packages in urban environments.
That, Grimsley said, persuaded the general public to start thinking about UAVs for commercial use, instead of the military functions that get most of the attention.
Broken Arrow-based Tactical Electronics started developing an unmanned helicopter about five years ago, and now has launched it into commercial use.
“We went to Alaska recently with a major energy company to do surveillance on pipelines,” said Curtis Sprague, a company salesman. “The helicopter weighs about 29 pounds and can hold 15 pounds of payload.”
Tactical Electronics has been making surveillance equipment for the military and law enforcement sectors for years but saw an opportunity for industrial aerial surveillance as well, Sprague said.
Thermal imaging cameras and lasers on an UAV can detect leaks and weaknesses on pipelines and other energy infrastructure without sending crews to remote areas.
Ethan Martin, a technology innovation adviser for Exxon Mobil Corp., said the energy giant is researching how to use UAVs to better monitor oil spills.
Elsewhere, companies such as NextGen UAS in Oklahoma City are working to develop transponders and other surveillance systems for unmanned aerial systems, while the Noble Foundation is among groups trying to find out how to use drones to efficiently and cheaply survey farms and ranches.
Oklahoma officials have moved in aggressively to make the state a center for unmanned aerial systems. OSU has been offering a degree option in the field for nearly four years, and other schools around the state have been conducting research in designing the technology, as well as writing software and developing sensors and detection programs for UAVs.