Drones, Eyes in the Sky: Unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling the skies above Oklahoma

TULSA - Some call them killing machines.

Others, including top U.S. officials, say they make the world a safer place by allowing the military to target and eliminate the most-wanted terrorists.

At the very least, they are "eyes in the sky," used for spying and surveillance.

RELATED STORY - Pressure builds for civilian drone flights at home (http://bit.ly/10gpY2U)

Now, the controversy surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, is about to fly from the battlefields of Southeast Asia to over the wheat fields of Oklahoma.

SPEEDFEST

Every April, hundreds gather at Oklahoma State University's unmanned flight station in rural Payne County for an event known as Speedfest.

"Speedfest is an OSU-created competition to help drive aerospace design," said Wes Combs, a teacher's assistant with the OSU School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.

Teams of college and high school students showcase their latest designs of unmanned aircraft and give spectators a chance to see them fly.

MOBILE READERS - Click this link http://bit.ly/speedfest to see some of the planes students presented during Speedfest April 20, 2013

"There's a lot of work put into these airplanes," said Combs.

Unmanned aircraft design and development is nothing new to OSU. The program started years ago, well before the current debate over unmanned aerial vehicles even began.

"We do a good job," said Combs. "We're pretty proud of what we do here."

OSU students often work on projects for the federal government.

A team of grad students recently completed an unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We worked around the clock for three months basically," said Jacob Stockton, one of the designers.

"It's mainly a propulsion system demonstration vehicle. They want to see what kind of concept students would come up with given the new propulsion system they are researching," said Thomas Hays, another one of the designers.

The grad students are not sure what DHS will think of their design, they just hope to do more of this kind of work in Oklahoma as a career.

"I really hope to see the industry pick up, take off and I'd love to stay here and work," said Hays.

FALLIN'S PLAN

Students are not the only ones excited about the possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin shares their enthusiasm.

With the industry expected to triple in size over the next decade, Fallin created an unmanned aerial systems council in 2011.
 

MOBILE READERS - Click this link http://bit.ly/dronespix to see photos of drones used around the world.

The council is tasked to come up with ways to make Oklahoma a leader in commercial drone development.

Supporters say commercial drone development could lead to more jobs in Oklahoma and could benefit individuals involved in a number of industries, including farmers, who could use the aircraft to monitor crop conditions, or even photographers, who could use them to capture images from unique viewpoints.

The council made 10 recommendations in its report, including calling for the state to compete aggressively to become the home of one of six future FAA test ranges for unmanned aircraft.

CONCERNS OVER PRIVACY

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

"This is an area I think that's treading on very dangerous ground both in terms of domestic democracy as well as our overseas interventions," said Jeremy Kuzmarov, an assistant history professor at the University of Tulsa.

Kuzmarov has written extensively on the topic.

"I'm very wary about it because I think we've seen the development in the last decade of kind of a surveillance state, where Big Brother is watching everywhere you go," said Kuzmarov.

Kuzmarov says he isn't against the development of new technology, however when it comes to drones he thinks the potential for abuse exists and will grow, especially if more government agencies, like police departments, begin using them.

"It's a very fine balancing act for any police department and I think having this kind of technology could possibly contribute to major abuses of civil liberties," said Kuzmarov.

CIVILIAN USE

Despite concerns like that, Congress passed legislation in 2012 to accelerate civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace.

The FAA has until Septmber of 2015 to come up with a comprehensive set of regulations.

Neither side is sure of what exactly the regulations will be, but one thing is clear.

The controversy over these flying mechanical creatures is not going away anytime soon.

What do you think about drones flying overhead? Tell us below in the comment section or on our Facebook page.

You can follow Brandon on Twitter @BrandonLRichard, and on Facebook, search for Brandon Richard KJRH.

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