The Sky’s The Limit

The Sky's The Limit

Transplanted Californian: Dianne Zimnavoda, president of RCF Technologies, moved her company from Los Angeles to Vidalia.
The flying robot invasion has already begun. Lethal, battle-tested drones (unmanned aviation vehicles or UAVs) are being used in Pakistan, and the military wants more of them. Selected universities, law enforcement agencies and aerospace firms currently are operating UAVs in limited domestic airspace.

And in a few years, through federal coercion, more robots will be sharing the friendly skies over your neighborhood with passenger planes and other traditional aircraft.

All of which could ensure a lucrative future for an already soaring aerospace industry in Georgia. Last year, Georgia’s worldwide aerospace exports topped $5.75 billion – fourth highest in the U.S.

“It is an industry that definitely keeps me busy,” says Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation (COI) for Aerospace, which operates under the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD). “We’ve got 500 companies spread out all over the state, and it’s so geographically diverse, it’s sometimes hard for people to get a handle on it.”

An engineer by training, Justice has worked for some of Georgia’s blockbuster aerospace and aviation companies throughout his career. Today, he is Georgia’s aerospace guy, so his boss, GDEcD Commissioner Chris Cummiskey, depends on Justice and the COI to, “think ahead, look for new ideas.

“We want to keep focusing on what the next major movement in aerospace is,” Cummiskey says.

Congress gave a pretty good hint of at least one of the next major movements in February, when it passed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open national airspace by late 2015 to civil and commercial UAVs. Leading up to that, the FAA is going to designate six UAV test sites around the country, and states are lining up for the opportunity.

“There’s a lot of potential for Georgia, and there are a lot of people running the numbers right now on how much economic activity might result,” says Lora Weiss, lab chief scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), one of the leading brain-centers in the development of fully autonomous (or pilotless) UAVs for the Department of Defense – actual flying robots that think for themselves, can communicate with other autonomous robots (in the air or on the ground) to spy, hunt, kill, whatever.

Georgia Tech, along with Middle Georgia College and state industry leaders like Justice, are part of a public and private collection of entities pitching the FAA this summer, “going after the economic activity that we think would follow if Georgia gets selected [as a test site],” Weiss says.

The expectation, of course, is that such a site would attract supporting industries and create jobs – parts and aircraft makers and suppliers, maintenance and logistics people, technicians and researchers, adding to the more than 80,000 people (fifth in the nation) currently employed in all facets of Georgia’s aerospace industry.