WASHINGTON — Central Oregon is well-positioned to benefit from the economic benefits of the burgeoning unmanned aerial vehicle market within the aviation industry after the Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that Oregon will host three highly sought-after test ranges.
One of the ranges will be based on a roughly 900-square-mile area on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation near Madras. The others in Oregon will be in Tillamook and at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton.
More than a dozen companies have expressed interest in opening a satellite facility in Central Oregon because of its proximity to the Warm Springs site, said Roger Lee, the executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon.
“Our estimates were that we could generate 200 to 400 jobs here in the next five years or so in Central Oregon based on the availability of test areas,” he said. “We’ve got about 15 companies who said they would set up satellite operations here and work with UAVs.”
Those estimates may even be a little low, he said, because of the location of the other sites selected by the FAA.
Oregon is part of a Pan-Pacific team that includes Alaska and Hawaii, and the other winning sites were in Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
The aviation industry already has a significant presence in the Pacific Northwest and California, he said. But the nearest state with an unmanned aerial vehicle test site is Nevada, which could make Central Oregon even more attractive to aviation companies already in the Northwest.
“We think we’re pretty well positioned in that region to capitalize on testing,” he said.
Monday’s announcement, part of an effort by the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace by the end of 2015, opens the door for innovation in the U.S. in the UAV field, Lee said.
Although the U.S. was an early leader in developing UAV technology, other countries’ UAV industries have outstripped the U.S. because regulations have hampered their domestic use, he said. With the FAA moving forward, a lot of those barriers will fall away as technologies are developed so that, like manned aircraft, UAVs can detect and avoid other aircraft in the sky.
“If you look at the aviation industry, it’s the fastest growing segment of it,” Lee said. “It’s definitely something that we think has great potential and continued growth for the next 10 or 15 years.”
In addition to aviation companies that could manufacture and fly the UAVs, other related fields may want to establish offices near the test site, including firms that design and develop software, sensors, cameras and optics, he said.
Initially, much of the work will center around research, said Eric Simpkins, Oregon’s chief operating officer for the Pan-Pacific team and a leading contributor to the FAA application.
One of the anticipated domestic applications for UAVs will be for what Lee calls “precision agriculture,” or using an airborne sensor to detect crops in hard-to-reach places that may need extra water or nutrients.
While UAVs can take spectral readings of entire fields or individual plants, it will take time to develop the ability to interpret those images so farmers can distinguish between healthy and struggling plants, Simpkins said.
“You need to be able to characterize the spectral images you are receiving,” he said. UAVs can take crop-wide scans or zero in on a single plant, he said.
In addition to the research, Simpkins envisions economic activity derived from commercial applications of the new capabilities unlocked by UAVs.
The FAA recently gave farmers permission to do low-altitude flyovers of their crops with UAVs to examine their crops, he said. Emerging companies will likely either look to sell UAVs to farmers or offer a service where they fly the vehicles and provide the data.
“Our sense of it is that, yes, there’s some economic development that comes from producing the platforms” used to produce the spectral imaging, he said. “(But) much of the economic development in Oregon will be providing the service to customers like farmers who want to characterize what’s happening on their property.”
Another application particularly useful in Oregon is firefighting, he said.
“Unmanned aircraft can fly 24 hours a day; with infrared technology, they can look for hot spots through the smoke and the haze,” he said. Human pilots can’t do that, he noted.
UAVs may also be used to manage wildlife and natural resources more effectively, Lee said.
For example, wildlife officials currently use manned airplanes to measure where sage grouse have established lecks.
“It’s fairly costly to do that and potentially disruptive to the wildlife they’re trying to manage. You can fly a UAV at a fraction of the cost and cover a lot more territory without disturbing the wildlife,” he said.
They can also provide a useful tool for ranchers trying to fend off cattle rustlers, by hovering and monitoring who is coming onto a specific property, he said.
Lee likened the development of UAVs to the historical development of airplanes. Initially, starting in World War I, planes were used almost exclusively by the military, but eventually their commercial use far outpaced their military applications. Similarly, UAVs such as predator drones have been used extensively by the military in the Middle East. But now the FAA has opened the door for their domestic deployment.
“We have an opportunity to really capitalize on a technology that has been largely developed in the U.S.,” Lee said. “If we don’t develop that here, other countries will. We don’t want to see our industries take flight to these places.”
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