For years now, the U.S. military has flown unmanned drones over hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones gather intelligence and at times conduct attacks on the battlefield. But here at home, drones have largely been absent from American skies.
That however is about to change. The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to select 6 areas throughout the U.S. for drone testing. There’s an effort underway in Oregon to compete for one of those spots.
Tucked away in a warehouse in Central Oregon, engineer Matt Smith is working at the forefront of a technology which many say is still in its infancy.
This small engine, about the size of a fist, was created by Smith’s company Hatch Product Development. It’s designed to power an unmanned drone. But in order to test it in the air, Smith would need either access to a restricted airspace, controlled by the military, or he’d need a special permit issued by the FAA.
“We’d love to take them up in the air, but we can’t. The space is so valuable right now that outside contractors like myself and a number of others can’t get time in the air,” Smith says.
But now Congress has mandated the FAA establish new test areas. So industry watchers are expecting to see more entrepreneurs like Smith working on on ways to apply the technology for commercial use.
Even before Congress acted, a push was underway by a consortium of private and public entities to allow for this kind of testing in Central Oregon.
Roger Lee is with the group Economic Development for Central Oregon, one of the groups leading the effort.
“You know, there’s going to be stiff competition. We’re going to be one of probably two dozen states that will be competing for these six areas.”
Lee says that’s one of the reasons a proposal that started out as an effort in Central Oregon has been expanded to include partners from across the Pacific Northwest. Last month in Portland more than 50 people attended a meeting convened by Senator Ron Wyden to discuss a regional application.
The meeting included Central Oregon representatives from The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Oregon State University - but also participants from as far away as Washington and Idaho.
Among them, representatives from defense contractor Boeing and its spin-off Insitu.
Roger Lee says Insitu is the largest industry player in the region, and its inclusion lends the proposal credibility.
“You know they’re kind of on two sides of the Columbia Gorge in two states, so that makes sense to be combined with Washington.”
But that raises a question - by broadening the proposal to include Washington and Idaho - does Central Oregon run the risk it will be left out?
Senator Ron Wyden doesn’t think so.
“I believe it’s hard to put together a proposal for our region without giving an important role to Central Oregon because so much groundwork has been lead by this part of our state,” Wyden says.
The FAA isn’t likely to make a decision any time soon. Wyden points out that the agency hasn’t yet defined what its selection process is going to look like – let alone which areas will be selected.
EDCO’s Roger Lee agrees.
“I think that we’ve made the analogy that we’re racing to the starting line.”
Lee says the commercial application of unmanned technologies has enormous potential in areas like search and rescue, mapping and firefighting - even if it takes years before unmanned drones fly over domestic skies.
The FAA is required to come up with a plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by 2015.