Drone testing sites named

Warm Springs among FAA picks in Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs will host a drone test range as part of a national effort to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into American airspace by the end of 2015.

On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced its selection of six winning proposals, including the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex, a three-state entry composed of Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. The other winning sites, chosen from 25 applicants from 24 states, were the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in upstate New York, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech.

Within each site, there are multiple test ranges, and the Pan-Pacific group will have three ranges in Oregon, said Eric Simpkins, the chief operating officer of the Pan-Pacific team and Oregon’s team leader. They include an operations center on tribal land at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs near Madras, one at Tillamook on the coast, and a third in Pendleton, based at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport. A potential fourth test range at the Juniper Military Operations Area, a remote area where the Oregon Air National Guard trains that encompasses parts of Deschutes, Crook, Harney and Lake counties, is being “held in reserve at this time,” he said.

Simpkins said the Warms Springs site has a “very large footprint,” including almost 900 square miles of sparsely populated area. It will be used for long-term missions, as well as missions that require speed and high altitude.

The sites will conduct research that will help the FAA integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into American airspace by the end of 2015. Key focus areas will include safety and data-gathering, environmental impacts and the ability to detect and avoid other aircraft.

“The announcement is incredible for the emerging UAS industry,” Simpkins said. “To be selected is an incredible feeling.”

Although remotely piloted aircraft are often called “drones,” particularly to describe military-style predators, they are more correctly referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Unmanned aerial system, or UAS, describes not just the aircraft but the other elements, such as navigational equipment and pilot, involved in flying the aircraft.

Diversity of climate and geography was an important criterion for the FAA, and with sites in Alaska, the Pan-Pacific team was the only entry with an arctic component, Simpkins said. Hawaii adds a tropical element, while Oregon provides access to desert, high desert, forest and coastline environments.

“That (diversity) is going to be very important, because unmanned aerial systems, just like manned aircraft, have to fly everywhere,” Simpkins said.

The facilities at Tillamook and Pendleton are already operational, and the Warm Springs site will likely be up and running in six months, he said.

“It’s going to take awhile to spiral up,” he said.

The FAA has committed to running these sites through February 2017, which will mean millions of dollars in economic development.

The Association of Aerial Vehicle Systems International projects $13.6 billion of economic impact from UAVs within the first three years of integration into American airspace. Domestically, this will lead to the creation of 34,000 manufacturing jobs and 36,000 related jobs by the end of 2017, according to the association.

It is too early to tell what kind of economic impact Monday’s announcement will have on Central Oregon, Simpkins said. But the hope is that aviation companies will develop local facilities, and that related software and research projects will also spring up.

None of the FAA test sites will be involved in military applications, he said.

“We will concentrate on commercial and civil applications,” such as developing UAVs that can help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study fisheries or farmers use airborne sensors to tell whether crops in hard-to-reach places need water or fertilizer.

The FAA maintains that people living nearby a test range should not worry about having their privacy invaded by the development of new technology that could allow a UAV to hover in one place for hours.

“From the start, the FAA recognized it was important to have requirements ensuring that privacy and civil liberties are protected at the test sites,” the FAA’s news release states. “Among other requirements, test site operators must comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy, have publicly available privacy policies and a written plan for data use and retention, and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment.”

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com