Oregon could soon become a launch pad for a drone industry expansion that produces thousands of new jobs over the next decade.
Drones are mostly used by the military, but manufacturers are ready to make them for other uses like crop spraying and forest fire search and rescue. The only problem is that they have few places to test new products — the five drone companies based in Oregon use the Boardman Bombing Range or Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles.
If the Federal Aviation Administration approves Oregon’s application to be a drone test site, manufacturers could also fly out of the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton, Port of Tillamook and Warm Springs.
“The objective of the FAA is to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace — it means they (eventually) fly anywhere,” said Erik Simpkins, lead researcher for the test site application. “Our objective is to learn how to fly safely and avoid other unmanned systems and unpiloted systems by flying in rural areas.”
Pendleton has become a hot spot for drone manufacturers since the Army National Guard was approved to fly them out of the airport.
An already healthy guest list of 150 confirmed to attend a drone conference in October has increased to more than 200, said Eric Folkestad, president of the Cascade Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International.
Most drone conferences — including those in major cities like Seattle — attract 120 attendees.
If Pendleton is chosen as a test site, manufacturers could flock here — and bring parts suppliers with them.
The FAA plans to give manufacturers six test sites a year to fly in designated, unpopulated areas before allowing drones to fly in the same airspace as commercial planes.
Simpkins is confident in Oregon’s test site application because it includes a variety of environments to fly drones including high desert and low mountains. Partnering with Alaska and Hawaii has added to this advantage.
Simpkins would not say exactly where drones would be flown in Pendleton. It would include the 100 square miles of mostly wheat fields the Guard uses and areas of the Blue Mountains.
Chrisman Thursday convinced county commissioners to hand over $5,000 in economic development funds to reimburse Simpkins for his research. Commissioners were hesitant to say yes because they said the city has not educated the public enough about the project — many people may not understand that drone operators by law cannot spy on people, for instance.
County economic development director Hulette Johnson told the commissioners he would help the city hold public forums if the test site application is approved. The county economic development budget is funded by lottery earnings — a separate revenue source than the funds the county recently refused to tap to help the city pay to replace the Eighth Street bridge.
Contact Chris Rizer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.