Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin

WASHINGTON — Last year, when Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into American airspace by the end of 2015, it initiated an intense competition to be selected as one of six test sites.

After the FAA published its requirements earlier this year, 50 groups from 37 states quickly expressed interest.

Oregon has teamed with Alaska and Hawaii to form the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex, with Alaska serving as team leader.

“Alaska has over a decade of unmanned aerial vehicle experience, both in terms of research and operational applications,” said Eric Simpkins, the chief operating officer of the Pan-Pacific team and Oregon’s team leader.

Although remotely piloted aircraft are often called “drones,” thanks in large part to the media’s use of the term to describe military-style predators, the proper term for them is unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, Simpkins explained.

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.

The Pan-Pacific team will not use large aircraft with military applications, but small to medium sized UAVs with wingspans that range from several inches to several yards across, said Simpkins.

The FAA’s decision to allow states to team up meant that Oregon could find partners to improve its chances of becoming a test site.

“We felt that given the requirements, Oregon’s application in and of itself might not be as competitive as some of the other states’,” Simpkins said.

A number of other states in lower latitudes approached Alaska, but it turned down all the other teams, said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at Oregon State University.

Only one state offers arctic conditions, and it is participating only in the Pan-Pacific application.

“It’s nice to be going with a hot date,” he said.

With Alaska and Hawaii on board, the Pan-Pacific group could test UAVs in a diverse set of terrains and flying conditions that re-create conditions found throughout most of the world, from tropical heat to extreme cold, over lush forests and parched deserts.

Within each site, there are multiple test ranges, and the Pan-Pacific group would have seven ranges in Alaska, three in Hawaii, and three or four in Oregon, Simpkins said.

The proposed sites in Oregon are an operations center at Tillamook on the coast, one on tribal land at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs near Madras with easy access to desert and forest areas, and a third in Pendleton, based at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport. While none of the research will involve military UAVs, the National Guard unit based in Pendleton has experience flying UAVs and will be able to provide expertise, he said.

Central Oregon could host a fourth test range, possibly associated with 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.

The FAA is expected to announce its decision on test sites by the end of the year.

Possible economic benefits

Testing UAVs is only part of the benefit of being selected by the FAA, said Spinrad.

In addition to the jobs and economic development that come with building the infrastructure necessary to host a test range, the opportunity to conduct academic research using UAVs and develop commercial uses has tremendous potential. One industry forecast estimates that the global UAS market could be worth up to $89 billion over the next decade, and the U.S. is expected to account for almost two-thirds of the world’s research and development investment in the field.

“To be named as one of the six national test sites, for what is clearly going to be a capability that we take for granted in the future, would be a real feather in our cap should we win it,” Spinrad said.

UAVs could enable precision agriculture, as farmers could use small aircraft to pinpoint and deliver extra irrigation, herbicides or pesticides in remote areas. Thanks to increasingly sensitive sensors on UAVs, this could soon be a cheaper option than using a piloted airplane to douse an entire area.

UAVs could also monitor Christmas tree farms to study the effect of storms, and could linger over water to observe wave motion over an extended period of time.

“There really are an enormous number of applications,” he said. It won’t be long before UAVs are an accepted part of our culture, much in the way cellphones have quickly become commonplace, he said.

UAVs are particularly suited for work that is dull, dirty and dangerous, he said.

It would be dull for a person to linger in a remote location to record observations, but not for a UAV. Similarly, flying over a smokestack to monitor emissions or flying over a wildfire can be dirty and dangerous. Using a UAV could produce better results without putting a life at risk.

Planning for future UAV use

With that in mind, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office applied last year for a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA that would allow it to operate UAVs.

“This is simply setting up an infrastructure for potential future use,” said Lt. Adam Phillips, a public information officer with the department. The department has not purchased a UAV, but wants to keep its options open, he said.

The ability to use a UAV could result in fewer risks for law enforcement officers, he said. For example, several train lines run through the county, and if a train derailed in a remote area and spilled a potentially toxic substance, a UAV could fly close enough to read the markings on railcars to help determine what had been spilled.

Last year, a kayaker was stranded at the foot of a steep bank in the Sandy River Gorge, he said.

Officers set up a multi-rope, high-angle rescue, but had to wait overnight after it got dark. A small UAV could have flown a small radio to the stranded kayaker, or allowed a better evaluation of his medical condition, Phillips said. Or it could have dropped some medical supplies.

There are legitimate concerns about privacy, but it is already legal for private citizens to operate a small aircraft, he said, so long as they stay away from airports.

“A Realtor can send up one of these multi-rotor devices and take a picture of a house any time they want to,” he said. “That’s how Google maps has a picture of my house and cars in the driveway.”

The department has no intention of using UAVs to spy on people, he said.

“We do not see it as a covert surveillance technique,” he said. “The device we (would use) is very loud and noticeable,” and makes noise similar to a string trimmer.