Courtesy, Aerial Services Inc.

The recently released report on the potential economic impact of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on the United States was startling. If anything can make Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) move faster toward integrating UAS into the national airspace, it would be dollars and jobs.

So in that sense, the study titled “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” was significant for its prediction that integration would have an $82 billion impact and provide 103,000 new jobs by 2025. But the number that jumped out to some experts in the geospatial profession was 10.

The geospatial profession was lumped in with “other” professions, and, in total, “other” only accounted for 10 percent of the projected impact.

Mike Tully, president and CEO of Aerial Services of Cedar Falls, Iowa, took exception to that forecast for geospatial services.

“If this study assumes precision agriculture and public safety are 90 percent of the known potential markets, I suspect 50 percent or more of the economic impact will be in currently unknown or nonexisting remote-sensing markets,” Tully said. “The markets we are not measuring or even thinking about may eventually contribute the largest economic impact.

“The non-ag, non-public safety market could prove to be 10 times bigger than the ag market.”

Perhaps the reason Tully suggests that the geospatial profession could see such enormous economic impact is because the study’s estimates were based on the results of Japan’s integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the 1990s. Since Japan has about 4 percent of the land area as the U.S. and since Japan integrated UAVs before remote sensing and other geospatial technologies had emerged, the geospatial profession could have a much greater economic impact than what the study indicates.

“UAS will be disruptive technology to the geospatial profession, especially to existing remote-sensing operations,” Tully said. “UAS will enable much better, less expensive remote sensing of all types. Current business models using manned aircraft and traditional sensors will cease to exist, except perhaps in specialized operations.”

Tully, who is a member of the MAPPS board of directors and whose company is a member of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the organization that sponsored the study, said he anticipates new technologies to arise from integration. He expects better sensors will be operated closer to the ground, swarming virtual sensor arrays, persistent sensing platforms, real-time transmission of information from the “flying sensor,” and automated processing centers.

The commercial surveillance market, including pipelines, public events, transportation corridors, national parks and more, which are “virtually nonexistent today, will grow rapidly,” he said.

Jeff Lovin, senior vice president and director of geospatial services at Woolpert, a design, engineering and geospatial firm in Dayton, Ohio, also anticipates “a huge paradigm shift” that “is really going to change the geospatial profession.”

Not only does he see opportunities within geospatial mapping in the public and private sectors, he anticipates an economic boon for manufacturers. Indeed, the study says integration will create more than 70,000 new manufacturing jobs in the first three years alone.

“If you look at the fleet, everyone is flying a fleet of aircraft that were built in the ’70s, Lovin said. “Commercial aviation took such a hit through the recession that in the ’80s, they stopped building most models. A lot of firms fly larger twin-engine aircraft—10-, 11-, 12-passenger aircraft—and those haven’t been made in years. … We take impeccable care of our aircraft. We maintain them and rebuild the engines every year. But the airframes themselves … they can’t fly forever.

“At some point after a certain number of hours, we won’t be able to keep these planes in the air. The airframes will just be worn out. So 10 years from now, I could see Woolpert only operating unmanned systems.”

Darryl Jenkins, a past professor at George Washington University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with more than 30 years of experience in aviation economics, co-authored the study. He said the UAV industry in the U.S. is in an “embryo state in terms of commercial applications.”

He estimates that the total economic impact stemming from integration in the first three years will surpass $13.6 billion. It will then grow substantially until 2025, when the total economic impact of the first 11 years passes $82 billion. Of that $82 billion, more than $482 million will be collected as tax revenue for local, state and federal governments, he said.

“Every year that we delay integration it costs the United States more than $10 billion in potential economic impact, and this is the number we want you to remember,” Jenkins said during a conference call with reporters last month. “This translates to a loss of $27 million per day that UAS are not integrated into the national airspace system.”

In addition to the economic impact, Jenkins forecasts that 103,776 new jobs will be created nationally by 2025 if UAS are allowed to fly. He said these jobs will be found in states with favorable regulations and infrastructure. Establishment of FAA test sites will help determine where many of these new jobs will be.

Lovin said he’s been hearing that Ohio, the birthplace of aviation, is one of the frontrunners for a test site. And he’s hopeful those rumors are accurate.

“There aren’t too many things we’re hearing in the news today that are putting out numbers like this for job growth and economic growth for businesses,” he said. “I hope all the right people get behind this technology, because it could really be good for our country and for the geospatial profession specifically.”