By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

The Warm Springs test range for unmanned aircraft systems, or drone technology, expanded in June to include the Prineville Airport, in addition to the Madras Airport, the Warm Springs facility manager said.

“We needed to be able to offer an airport,” said Liz Stalford, the Warm Springs Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Range manager. “Some larger drones need an airport.”

The Warm Springs test range, established in 2013, is one of three in Oregon, the other two are at Pendleton and Tillamook. All three are part of the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex managed by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. At the test ranges, applications for pilotless aircraft are put to the test, from monitoring wildlife populations to precision agriculture. The Warm Springs site focuses on drone applications for power-line maintenance and firefighting, according to The Bulletin archives.

Many pilotless craft do not need long runways or any runway, but larger, heavier aircraft are appearing that need a stretch of asphalt to take off and land, Stalford said.

“Heavy drones can’t fly in the national airspace, yet,” she said Friday. “The (Federal Aviation Administration) is just now leaning into heavy drones, those 55 pounds and heavier, and that will make test sites extremely valuable.”

Madras Airport is closest to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, but Prineville is close to Bend and Redmond, where the people working with unmanned aircraft technology may want to live, Stalford said.

The Bend and Redmond airports are too busy to provide the kind of space needed for drone test flights, she said. Bend is home to a flight school and Redmond is a busy commercial aviation hub for Central Oregon.

Madras Airport is planning to erect more hangars to accommodate unmanned aircraft, said Janet Brown, the Jefferson County manager for Economic Development for Central Oregon. Drone testing and development is more than flight, she said. Manufacturing of components for applications may take place at the test sites.

“There is a whole ripple effect when you bring UAS manufacturing in,” Brown said.

She said the Madras Airport has partnered with the test range for several years. She said businesses interested in taking part in drone development had inquired about locating in Madras even before the range was in operation. “I know we’ll have more,” Brown said.

The test range is an economic development tool for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The tribes development arm, Warm Springs Ventures, started work in 2015 to turn part of a former casino into classrooms and training facilities. The Kah-Nee-Tah lodge provides lodging and meeting space, Brown and Stalford said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,