The small, remote-control helicopters hovering in a conference room took on the look of fun flight at a hobby store. But when mounted with video cameras and with further development by a Jacksonville company and others, the aircraft could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new commerce for Florida.
While the Aviation Systems Engineering Co. has provided military applications for unmanned drones since 2004, it is trying hard to use different terminology while developing a testing, observation, training and research site for commercial drones. Wary of associating the unmanned aircraft with their lethal military reputation, ASEC officials speak of remote-control helicopters and fixed-wing planes for use in agriculture, public safety and real estate, among other potential applications.
Most of the unmanned aircraft under consideration for commercial use now weigh less than 55 pounds, similar to recreational model unmanned aircraft. But the potential for development could broaden to aircraft that could be nearly as large as manned airplanes.
The applications can range from crop dusting and monitoring of agricultural land, to observation of devastated areas after a disaster, to helping police get a fix of the area in hostage situations, to displays and observations of real estate properties, among other uses.
ASEC Program Manager Brent Klavon said that while the company already generates about $30 million in annual revenue for developing operating systems for military aviation, mainly for the U.S. Navy, the company is preparing for a share of what many in the aeronautics field believe will be a vast commercial market that could amount to a $632 million boost to the commercial market for unmanned aircraft systems in the Sunshine State, according to estimates from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The same economic study suggested the unmanned aircraft systems industry could generate 3,251 jobs in Florida alone in three years.
Estimates for the economic impact on the U.S. are much larger.
"The figures are kind of crazy big and they usually have a 'B' with a billion behind them," Klavon said. "Everywhere you see for a potential bird's-eye view or the elimination of a ladder to go up on a roof . you could use one of these things."
As the industry develops standards for creating the systems, the key to opening the commercial market will be the regulations that the Federal Aviation Administration is formulating.
That's the sticking point: Flying unmanned remote-control aircraft beyond recreational use is illegal in the United States. But as the FAA and other regulators grapple with the legalities, companies such as ASEC continue to prepare for the new market that should come in 2015, according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Two types of unmanned systems already have been approved for commercial use in the northern areas of Alaska.
The FAA declined to respond to questions in a phone interview. But the FAA website shows that a "road map" on how to deal with unmanned aircraft is under heavy consideration.
"Unmanned aircraft offer new ways for commercial enterprises and public operators to increase operational efficiency, decrease costs and enhance safety; and this road map will allow us to safely and efficiently integrate them into the (national air space)," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says on the website.
ASEC officials hope to become a testing and research company, one that the aircraft manufacturers and developers will employ to refine the systems.
In the meantime, ASEC is providing in-kind services for Space Florida, which is developing space and aeronautical commercial interests in the state. Government-funded Space Florida is based at Cape Canaveral.
Jax Chamber President Daniel Davis said many in the business community are following the unmanned-aircraft developments closely. He acknowledged that many are unaware of the potential commercial impact, but the unknowns make the drone development attractive.
Davis compared the potential unknown impact of unmanned vehicles to the iPhone and that few were aware of the potential commercial impact of that device. But Davis also said the pending legalities surrounding unmanned aircraft call for more information being passed along to the community before the technology can be embraced fully.
"I think we have to prove that the community doesn't have anything to worry about in the safety and privacy issues that come along with unmanned aircraft," Davis said. "Then, when it gets to the point, we need to be able to give budding creative entrepreneurs the opportunity to succeed."
Jim Kuzma, chief operating officer for Space Florida, said the development of unmanned systems will provide a lucrative market in commercial use. And, he said, Florida is the most reasonable staging area for testing and developing the machines.
"We've talked to numerous companies that will expand or come to Florida to test," Kuzma said. "If we can make a case for keeping our costs low, we can certainly win that."
A study by the unmanned-vehicle trade association ranked Florida fourth in the nation for potential to achieve the most economic benefit from industry developments.
The study also noted that Florida's robust aviation and aerospace sector is inviting. The workforce and academic talent to draw from is a good fit. Florida's geography, as well as its access to the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and natural habitats, make the state conducive to unmanned-vehicle operations.
"You don't need huge hangars and stuff for this, but you do need access to the airspace. That's what this Florida team is trying to provide," Kuzma said.
"ASEC has been helping us from the get-go," Kuzma said. "(But) we have about 85 or so partners in our consortium here. The skill set that ASEC brings in that has been critical . in the ability to operate in Florida. They're a key member of the team."
Klavon said the commercial success could come from the cost savings alone. A manned helicopter can cost thousands of dollars to operate per hour, but each unmanned aircraft costs between $1,800 and $5,000 and runs on battery or gasoline power.
"We don't need these to live," Klavon said. "But I think in 10 years time you'll see unmanned systems being used safely in commercial uses. It's not going to be uncommon to see a farmer with these drones flying over their fields."