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Editorial: Nation on doorstep of new phase with drones

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Aerial drones have acquired both earned and unearned reputations in recent years due in large part to their use in the war against terror. While their application in certain situations is being debated at the national and international level, the unmanned vehicles that actually have a variety of potential uses can also be seen as a tremendous boon to the local economy.

State officials, particularly those in the Indiana National Guard, view the drone industry as a strong economic vehicle, especially because of the facilities that already exist at the Camp Atterbury military installation.

While a relatively new system, Camp Atterbury’s drone program is already well-positioned for the base to be in the running for one of six testing sites being considered by the Federal Aviation Administration. The state has even sweetened the bid by partnering with Ohio in presenting a joint proposal. Atterbury officials already have invested about $1 million for a runway and maintenance building that are solely intended for drone usage.

The potential this program has for a ripple effect into the surrounding economy is tremendous. For instance, Atterbury is scheduled to host an unmanned aerial vehicle competition sponsored by NASA next year that is projected to draw up to 8,000 visitors. Those visitors will be staying in area hotels, eating in local restaurants and buying items at local stores.

That is but one of many events the base could host. Even more beneficial would be the number of jobs that could be created if the full potential of the undertaking is realized. A recent study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International projected drone-testing programs locally could create more than 1,000 jobs and result in more than $200 million in investment in Indiana by 2017.

While drone programs have been the focus of some controversy over their use in hunting down and killing suspected terrorists, that is only a fraction of the overall potential for their use.

Supporters of drone usage point out that farmers could use drones to dust crops and check the health of soil. Power and phone companies could send drones to see if storms damaged overhead utility lines. Engineers could inspect bridges or tall buildings while sitting at a video console.

Police, firefighters and other emergency responders also could employ the drones, such as if there’s a chemical spill at a plant, and it’s too risky for people to enter. The remotely piloted planes could be deployed to scope out natural disasters, keep an eye on traffic or patrol the borders.

In addition to drone testing, the area has the opportunity to become a center for the industry and bring in manufacturers of parts for the drones.

The nation is on the threshold of entering a new economic phase, and this area already has a foot in the front door.

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