The next frontier: unmanned aerial vehicles

Video: Innovation Day sheds light on growing industry

By Valerie Smith / The Bulletin

If you imagine the horse and buggy era, the only thing that comes to mind is hitch your horse and go — no required training, rules or technology. Now, fast forward to the automobile era. Freeways, traffic signals, licensing, navigation aids — everything is technological.

Next up on the frontier: unmanned aircraft vehicles.

SOAR Oregon has pushed towards the fast-track evolution of the unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned aerial vehicle industry in Oregon. The nonprofit works across the state to create economic development in aerial robotics.

“We are trying to jump from a horse and buggy era to today’s automobile era,” said Mark Morrisson, executive director of SOAR Oregon. “From Henry Ford and building the roads and interstate highways, which took four to five decades. We are going to do the evolution, which took decades, in just one decade. That’s what is so exciting about the UAV/UAS industry and SOAR Oregon.”

To focus on this industry and the education needed to develop it, SOAR Oregon hosted aerial robotics Innovation Day on Friday at Cascades Academy, just outside of Bend.

The event, attended by 200, included three sessions, beginning with UAV and UAS business leaders, followed by a session for students, teachers and parents, and ending with enthusiasts who build and fly drones competitively.

Dwayne Canfield, strategic business development manager for Intel Corp., which sponsored the event, said there are two main reasons Intel backed Innovation Day: supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and the booming industry.

“These kids are our future employees and customers,” said Canfield. “Planting a seed early by introducing STEM education early on is important.”

Currently, about 75 students in Central Oregon study what is considered STEM curriculum, which includes courses in robotics and UAVs, among others, according to Kevin English, Innovation Day coordinator and a STEM educator.

A STEM program is integrated at Sisters High School, Sisters Middle School, Trinity Lutheran School and Cascades Academy, English said.

Many students who continue STEM curriculum through high school and into college have become engineers, mathematicians and Navy pilots, among other lucrative careers, he said.

The UAV and UAS industry has continually grown since the economic downturn in 2008. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International came out with a report in June predicting the nationwide economic impact would grow from the current $11 billion annually, to about $80 billion through 2025.

The new industry could be worth millions of dollars in sales for Central Oregon and Oregon as a whole, SOAR Oregon’s Morrisson said.

The average annual salary for UAV workers in the Columbia Gorge, which is home to a handful of UAV component manufacturers, is $70,000, Morrisson said.

Tony DeBone, Deschutes County commissioner, believes the availability of flight time is going to be one of the most valuable things for the industry in Central Oregon.

“These are new high-tech creation jobs, higher than median income currently,” said DeBone. “We are breaking new ground, and we can be world leaders in some of these areas, possibly.”

The initial expansion of the UAV/UAS business started off in Central Oregon with the building of the unmanned aerial system test range in Warm Springs. It has turned into a statewide effort, and SOAR Oregon hopes to continue to create more opportunities for students, educators and businesses.

“SOAR’s job is to move all of the pieces as we can best do and see them fit together,” said Morrison. “Because this is a brand-new booming industry, the advantage for Central Oregon and the state of Oregon could be worth millions of dollars in exports.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,

vsmith@bendbulletin.com