Droning On

East Oregonian | May 15, 2013 9:21 a.m. | Updated: May 15, 2013 4:21 p.m.

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CHRIS RIZER East Oregonian

The loud, lawnmower-like whirr that filled the runway for the first time Monday afternoon could become commonplace at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.

A crowd of Army National Guard troops, city leaders and media watched as the 14-foot-long drone — or unmanned aerial vehicle — revved for several minutes on a slingshot-like platform before flying into the sky and out of sight.

Three troops waited inside Hummers for a SeaPort airplane to clear the path before remotely launching the drone. After months of waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the Guard to train his 27 troop platoon to use drones at the airport, the slight delay was not enough to wipe the grin off Lt. Col. Alan Gronewald’s face.

Once in flight, the drone cruised at 3,000 feet with no direction from a pilot, said Chief Warrant Mark Braeme. It completed two one-mile loops at about 75 mph before troops steered it to the ground.

The Guard can now fly drones out of the airport 24/7, but the Guard currently plans to fly them as much as once a week during the day. Although they use video to navigate, the Guard will not use the drones to take pictures of the ground.

The Guard can fly drones over 100-square-miles of mostly wheat fields north of the airport, with boundaries that stop two to three miles short of Highway 11, Adams, Athena, Helix and Holdman.

The Guard is the only entity that can currently fly drones out of the airport. But it could soon become a hotbed for flights by drone manufacturers and researchers if the FAA in December approves Oregon State University to use the same 100-square-miles as the guard, said Carter Kerns, who helped write the application. The FAA would use information from those flights to develop rules to integrate drones into the general airspace.

Drones are already being used locally for agricultural research.

The Hermiston Agriculture Research & Extension Center since April has launched them from their South First Street property and on a private farm west of Boardman and to fly them over those areas. The station is conducting research to develop drones that detect water and nitrogen deficiencies in crops, said station director Philip Hamm.

Hamm said his station is the only research entity in the state authorized to conduct research with drones, but the research station in Adams also has an application with the FAA to fly drones over its property on Tubbs Ranch Road and on 14 acres of private farmland off Rohde Road near milepost 198 on Interstate 84.

Contact Chris Rizer at crizer@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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