The word “drone” is so expansive that it nearly defies meaning. You can give your dad a drone, and he’ll fly it around the yard while developing his newfound love of aerial photography. The agriculture industry can use them to monitor and spray crops, and they may very well be the future of commercial package delivery. They can contribute to public safety by assisting with search and rescue missions as well as identifying and monitoring wildfires; conversely, they can detract from public safety by establishing new methods of surveillance and drastically altering the terms of warfare.
Referred to in technical terms as U.A.V.’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), drones are a market expected to be worth $127 billion by 2020, which could create over 100,000 jobs by 2025. The race to corner that market before drones become integrated into daily life — and, all signs say they will — has become competitive on an international scale.
Drones themselves — sleek, whirring, insect-like — seem most naturally suited to an autonomy-obsessed place like Silicon Valley, where countless people and companies already possess the funding, and willingness, to experiment with ideas that the public may not have warmed to yet. But somehow Central New York, an area cinched at the very top of the Rust Belt, has become a rising star in the American drone scene, with Syracuse at its focal point. So far, this hasn’t translated to economic prosperity; though it was once a hub for blue-collar employers such as Chrysler, Miller, Carrier, and G.E., the city’s poverty rate continues to decline, and it’s now the 13th most impoverished area in the nation. But after having gotten in on the ground floor, both state and local governments want to see how high drones can take the region’s economy.
In September 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership between NASA and the Northeast U.A.S. Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR) that includes a $30 million investment in the construction of a fifty-mile aerial corridor in which drones will be able to freely fly for testing purposes, as well as the creation of NUSTAR, touted in a press release as “the most comprehensive [drone] test facility in the nation.” This massive research centralization could make Syracuse bait for manufacturers of all stripes: already, drones were Syracuse’s carrot in its (failed) bid to become Amazon’s next headquarters.
On January 31, Syracuse’s newly elected Mayor Ben Walsh delivered his State of the City speech. Drones were a centerpiece.
"Soon,” he promised, “Syracuse will be the largest city in the nation covered by the instrumentation and software necessary to fly unmanned craft safely and efficiently for commercial purposes.”
The planned Central New York aerial corridor will stretch between Syracuse and Rome, two cities with strong ties to the military — Rome was home to the massive Griffiss Air Base until its 1995 conversion to a commercial airport, and Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport doubles as Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, an airfield that is the base of operation for the National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing. And Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s top contractor, has been one of the area’s few major employers that has stuck around.
Originally developed for military use, the drone industry is getting increasingly commercialized. “Different types of technology get boosts during wartime,” says Kelli Perrin, Assistant Director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at the Syracuse School of Law, which has received funding, through the Cuomo “C.N.Y. Rising” initiative, to research the integration of U.A.V.’s into the commercial sector. “You invest a whole lot of money in research and development for a really intense security thing and then you absorb the stuff that works into the commercial sector.”
The pattern described by Perrin plays out in the two ends of the corridor itself. Air Force drone operators carried out deadly missions from the safety of Hancock for much of the Obama administration, and in 2016, the base began launching MQ-9 Reaper Drones on a daily basis. In 2014, Griffiss International Airport — formerly Griffiss Air Base — became one of the seven sites authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration for the testing of commercial U.A.V’s. (And, in a bit of New Testament symbolism, the ancient Roman city of Syracuse was one of the Apostle Paul’s stopping points on his journey to Rome.)
In October, NUAIR brought on retired Air Force General Mark Gibbs as CEO. In a phone conversation, he spoke zealously about community support and the possibilities that U.A.V.’s can offer. “Once you’re around it for awhile, you realize it’s the next wave of aviation,” he said, listing commercial delivery, unmanned cargo flights, and law enforcement as the next big sectors to be impacted by U.A.V.’s.
"This is a global leadership issue,” he continued. “We Americans take leadership and aviation like a birthright, but it’s not. This is a very competitive market with very quick innovation throughout, especially in Asia and now Europe. Ultimately, it’s about jobs.”
Between the polarities of the violent and benign, immediate issues like privacy and desensitization get less air time.
But on one level, it seems counterintuitive for the state to attempt to bring back jobs by pouring money into an industry whose capacity to replace workers with robots is one of its chief selling points. It’s also true that previous Cuomo-backed proposals have a reputation for not being grounded with the needs of the area, at times literally. One widely-mocked 2016 proposal, a $15 million aerial gondola at the nearby NYS Fairgrounds, never took off; though earlier, in 2014, another $15 million was spent on a sleek, state-run film studio in Dewitt that never manifested the promised jobs or films. Last week, the local contractors hired to develop the studio were found guilty, along with Cuomo’s top aide, of fraud.
"It’s like everything else, it can go either way,” says Perrin. “This can be a really great development for the community from the ground up, an all tides rise all boats kind of thing, and there are a lot of people working on it who really love Central New York. So I like to be hopeful.”
Not everyone in Syracuse maintains that sense of cautious optimism, though. Since 2010, local activists have regularly staged elaborate protests around Hancock — last year on Good Friday, nine people were arrested after an action in which they dressed in the style of torture detainees and mock-crucified themselves on drones. Just this month, billboards reading “Armed Drones Make Orphans” went up around Syracuse, put up by the non-profit organization World Beyond War, contesting what they call a "whiteout of information" about drone strikes.
For the average hobbyist, though, Syracuse is a bit of a drone wonderland, with plentiful meetups, classes, and space to fly. Already, universities have begun steering curriculum toward robotics education.
Between the polarities of the violent and benign, immediate issues like privacy and desensitization get less air time. And while it’s too soon to measure the social and economic impact of the drone industry in Syracuse, but the governor’s initiative raises plenty of questions: Is there a way to address the concerns of anti-drone activists, and can the commercial drone industry ever truly shake its military past? Perhaps most pressingly, will the rise of a new industry actually bring jobs to the people who need them most?
In December, President Trump signed 2018’s version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. Tucked into the massive military spending bill is an addition of $6.8 million to Hancock’s budget, earmarked for the construction of a flight training unit. It’s yet another sign that the drones Central New York — in all their many forms, whether your notice them or not — will be in the Syracuse skies for quite some time.
"I was at the Christmas tree lighting downtown this year,” General Gibbs told me, “And I couldn’t help but notice that there was a drone overhead, probably filming the whole event."