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Oklahoma's big bet on commercial drones

Amazon.com is testing out the viability of drone delivery for small packages.
Amazon.com
Amazon.com is testing out the viability of drone delivery for small packages.

Oklahoma is positioning itself as one of the future hubs of the budding U.S. commercial drone industry.

The buzz around commercial drones grew to a steady hum after Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos discussed the possibility of delivering Amazon packages by drone on CBS' "60 Minutes." While the interview captured the public's imagination, a lot needs to happen before a viable, commercial drone business is established in America.

For one, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to draft guidelines that create a framework for the rules regulating drone flights and applications. That's not slated to happen until September 2015. Meantime, the FAA is expected to name six test sites around the country for preliminary experiments on commercial drone applications.

And Oklahoma is vying for one of those sites.

The state today is pouring resources into the growing drone business so it doesn't miss out on future opportunities. At a drone conference Wednesday in Midwest City, Okla., we talked with business people exploring the future of drone commercial applications.

Examples include drones used to monitor everything from farms to oil-and-gas pipelines. Politicians, academics and entrepreneurs who attended the conference all were eager to tap into the potential market for drones, also sometimes called unmanned aerial systems.

By 2025, the U.S. commercial drone industry will generate more than 100,000 jobs and add at least $82 billion to the economy, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

(Read more: Why the Amazon drone is just the beginning)

Currently, drones are primarily used by the military for both domestic border surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. But the excitement in Oklahoma isn't over military applications, but how the state can boost its economy from this nascent market.

While many are eager to see the commercial drone industry take off, there are serious privacy concerns that could slow the pace of growth.

Just in the past year, the American Civil Liberties Union says 42 states considered bills that would restrict drone use, with the legislative concerns centering around the privacy of local citizens. Drone legislation is "dead for this year" in Oklahoma, according to ACLU's website.

Despite the privacy concerns surrounding drones, a raft of graduate students are developing an expertise in this new field of commercial drone applications. It's a multidisciplinary effort, which combines aerospace engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.

Oklahoma State University students, for example, are doing research on how drones may help farmers improve crop yields and monitor agricultural fields for blight and diseases.

And the Oklahoma energy industry believes there's tremendous potential for monitoring pipelines, using drones. Small drones, equipped with specialized cameras, could fly over pipelines that may need repair. For Oklahoma, it's about getting out ahead of the future of energy and agriculture, and generating jobs.

"It will be creating a lot of jobs, both in the vehicle design and the operation and certification and analysis of the data. We will see the growth of jobs throughout the nation, but especially in those locations where the industry is centered," says Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma's secretary of science and technology.

With the aggressive coordination between industry, academics and politicians, Oklahoma wants to be one of the six states the FAA will pick as a test site.

"There are really so many places unmanned vehicle systems can be used," says Ben Kimbro, executive vice president of Tactical Electronics, based in Broken Arrow, Okla. "Any place that is dirty and dangerous, and where it is unsafe to put a human being," he said.

By CNBC's Josh Lipton and Mark Berniker. Follow them on Twitter @CNBCJosh and @markberniker.

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