In the 1990s, there wasn’t much debate on the value of drone technology among Air Force pilots such as Bob Brock.
“Unanimously, the thinking was that unmanned flying wasn’t real flying,” said Brock, a Kansas native.
Virtually every aspect of that thinking changed during his 22 years in active duty.
And the Kansas Department of Transportation has now tapped the retired lieutenant colonel to be the state’s first director of unmanned aircraft systems.
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That makes Brock, 49, a drone czar of sorts. According to some reports, his full-time, tax-supported position is the first of its kind anywhere in the country.
“We’re not aware of any other,” he said.
So why Kansas? And why now, with state coffers strapped as they are?
Better now than later, officials say, to set the controls for a fast-developing industry.
In his new capacity, Brock will work with state agencies and universities, private businesses and the Federal Aviation Administration to set rules on how unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, will function in Kansas skies. KDOT said it will pay Brock $80,000 a year.
“There is no question this is the right time to invest in a UAS position,” said Merrill Atwater, KDOT’s aviation director. “While the commercial and personal-use drone industry is still relatively new, we think it is more efficient for the state to establish guidelines in this early phase.”
Atwater added: “We will be looking at how to best position the state to ensure we have an environment that encourages business and economic growth in the aviation industry.”
On learning of the appointment, Kansas Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said, “I’m all for cutting-edge technology,” but he questioned the timing of the state’s push.
“I do think $80,000 is flying pretty high to get a drone regulator, especially given our very down-to-earth struggles,” he said.
The state’s aviation legacy is a source of Kansas pride. But unbeknown to many Kansans, the Sunflower State now is building a reputation among UAS buffs as an incubator for drone know-how.
That reputation largely stems from Kansas State University’s response to the 2007 tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan. Initially committed to improving disaster response, the university created one of the first undergraduate programs in the country offering four-year degrees in UAS technology.
Brock will maintain offices at KDOT’s aviation division in Topeka and on the K-State Polytechnic Campus in Salina, where students develop and operate drone systems.
K-State will not be contributing to Brock’s salary.
Kurt Barnhart, who directs the university’s Applied Aviation Research Center, said in a statement that the appointment could “bring lasting economic benefit to Kansas.” He said the new UAS director will help KDOT and K-State work together in advancing the drone industry.
Brock stressed in an interview with The Star that the growing use of drones must be mapped out to ensure safety in the air, privacy for Kansans on the ground and transparency in any state-run operations.
“There will be no surprises insofar as how UAS are used in the state of Kansas,” Brock said.
Brock in the 1990s flew manned operations over Bosnia and Kosovo. And despite being underwhelmed then by the potential of drone technology, he said most pilots’ doubts dissolved during the early 2000s after campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“No longer were (military officers) discussing the value of unmanned vehicles,” he said. “The discussion turned to: How many do we need? And when can we get them?”
Raised in Pittsburg, Kan., in a family of pilots, Brock’s work with the technology dates to 2003, when the military assigned him to a reconnaissance office supporting special operations.
Later he was named commander of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, which used unmanned aircraft around the globe.
He said civilian-world benefits will stretch from drones monitoring livestock and crop conditions to inspecting bridges, searching for disaster victims, security, news coverage and private businesses dealing in real estate.
“I’m a Kansas person,” he said. “I understand the people. I understand the markets, the tasks that we struggle with and the things we’re very good at. …
“We’re pretty good at integrating these (unmanned) systems with other systems. At the end of the day, that’s going to be the thing that makes Kansas stand out.”