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Arizona is particularly well positioned to receive the economic benefits of the booming self-driving vehicle industry throughout the 2020s. 

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Autonomous impacts. A new report by the Arizona Chamber Foundation says that Arizona’s economy is likely to be greatly stimulated by the self-driving vehicle industry in the 2020s. The report, “Economic Impacts of Advancing Arizona’s Competitive Position in the Autonomous Vehicle Industry,” says that Arizona is particularly well positioned to capture the expanding industry’s long-term economic benefits. The study states Arizona may increase its state and local tax collections by approximately $500 million by 2030 thanks to the autonomous vehicle industry. According to the report, “By 2026, $6.1B in estimated statewide [research and development] would create 39,000 direct jobs throughout the state.” Tucsonans are already seeing the impacts from this industry, such as in 2018 when Chinese-American artificial intelligence company TuSimple announced it was bringing 600 new jobs and 200 new autonomous semi trucks to Tucson, as well as doubling their warehouse size. TuSimple’s expansion alone is estimated to create an economic impact of more than $1 billion dollars through 2023. Business developers have named numerous reasons why Arizona, and specifically Tucson, is the best location to develop self-driving vehicles, but highlighted regulatory laws as a key factor. 

Innovation Startups. Two Tucson-based startup companies, Emagine Solutions Technology and Reglagene, recently won the Arizona Innovation Challenge, a competition designed to advance technology commercialization by helping early-stage ventures secure funding. Emagine Solutions Technology is a digital health company that develops software allowing a doctor’s mobile device to use ultrasound technology. This “Vistascan” software can greatly expand healthcare in low-resource and rural communities where access to medical equipment is difficult. Reglagene is a biotech company dedicated to creating new medicines to help cancer patients. Reglagene aims to use quadruplexes, which are DNA structures that selectively control the behavior of individual genes. Both Tucson startup companies are part of the University of Arizona’s Center for Innovation, and were awarded $150,000 to expand their capabilities. More than 80 startups entered the Arizona Innovation Challenge, but only 10 won funding. 

Missile funding. Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems recently received a contract from the Department of Defense for more than $1 billion. The contract is for the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA, an “interceptor” used to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Unlike some other missile interceptors, the SM-3 uses “sheer force, rather than an explosive warhead, to destroy its target” and can hit with the force of a 10-ton truck traveling 600 miles per hour. The technique is similar to intercepting a bullet with another bullet, and is able to be used on both land and sea. Recent developments on the SM-3 include larger rocket motors that will allow it to defend broader areas from ballistic missile threats and a larger kinetic warhead. The $1 billion contract is for Raytheon to manufacture and provide the Department of Defense with 62 SM-3 interceptors, along with multiple other stipulations. Work on this multi-year contract will be performed in Tucson, as well as Arkansas, Massachusetts, California and the United Kingdom. 

Transformed Trees. A new study from the University of Arizona shows how poplar trees can be genetically modified to not harm air quality while still growing at a normal rate. Though it may be surprising, certain tree species such as the poplar can emit polluting gases. In this case, poplars produce the hydrocarbon isoprene in response to climate stressors such as high temperature and drought. Poplars are a fast-growing tree species used for biofuel, paper, pallets, plywood and more. Poplar plantations, which have more than doubled in size over the last 15 years, greatly increase the amount of isoprene released into the atmosphere. Isoprene can react with gases produced by burning fossil fuels to produce ozone. Research indicates isoprene can damage respiratory health and warm the atmosphere. However, new research from UA in conjunction with the Helmholtz Research Center in Munich, Portland State University and Oregon State University, found that poplars can be genetically modified to not produce isoprene while still being able to be used for biofuel, paper and wood products. Research was conducted at poplar plantations in Oregon and Arizona. Researchers modified the trees using “RNA interference,” which suppresses specific genetic code.