Bend Airport has joined the Warm Springs Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Range, which gives drone developers expanded options for long-term projects, the range manager said Thursday.

“Bend provides upscale living, and I don’t know of another test range that does that,” said Liz Stalford, Warm Springs test range manager.

The test range, created at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 2013, also includes the Madras and Prineville airports. Including the Bend Airport makes available new hangar space going up there under a private developer, Aero Facilities LLC., of Bend, as well as about $9.1 million in public improvements. Those improvements include a new helipad and repaved ramps, a total of about 14 acres, said Gary Judd, the airport manager.

“They’re laying the groundwork,” Judd said. “As this technology comes along, we’re establishing how we’re going to operate. I look at it as a very positive thing. It’s coming whether we want it to or not.”

Stalford said that drone developers in Bend would benefit from the test range authority to allow unmanned vehicles under 55 pounds to fly above 400 feet. Normally, the federal aviation regulations prohibit smaller drones flying above that altitude, she said.

“And that’s what makes the test range very unique,” she said.

Adding airports in Madras, Prineville and Bend expands the capability of the Warms Springs test range, Stalford said.

The test range encompasses all of the Warm Springs reservation, including four specific launch and recovery sites and a dirt airstrip. The range is ideal for vertical take-off and landing trials, especially those of several weeks or more. Warm Springs, in addition to a 5,500-square-foot conference and training center, has access to food and lodging at the Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa, she said. The site was created as a place to test drone applications for power-line maintenance and firefighting.

The Warm Springs range is part of the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex, which encompasses sites in Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. In Oregon, ranges are also at Tillamook and Pendleton. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks, manages the Pan-Pacific complex.

Stalford said that developing some drone applications may require years at a site with a paved landing strip. At places such as Bend, entrepreneurs could relocate their families. She said she’s talked with companies interested in coming to Central Oregon for further research and development. She declined to identify those companies, citing the early nature of those talks.

“If you’re going to be there for two years, you’re not going to live in a resort,” Stalford said.

Research and development in drone technology in Central Oregon may benefit from what remains of a substantial local aviation industry reduced in size during the Great Recession. Cessna Aircraft, for example, once employed 400 people at a 204,000-square-foot plant at Bend Airport, a site occupied by Epic Aircraft. That business sector is experiencing a revival, said Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon.

“We feel like it’s slowly coming back,” he said Thursday. “There are about 30 companies with almost 600 employees operating in the region, that’s 3.5 percent growth over the last year. For year over year growth, that’s not bad.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

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