WARM SPRINGS — About 200 representatives from the unmanned aerial vehicle industry gathered Wednesday at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa — in the middle of a federal UAV test range — to discuss commercializing drone technology.
“We’re taking a military technology and transitioning it over to commercial and civil applications, meaning we’re going to do precision agriculture, search and rescue, and we’re going to fight forest fires,” said Eric Folkestad, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Cascade Chapter.
Interest in UAVs, also called unmanned aerial systems, has soared since late December when the Federal Aviation Administration picked six U.S. sites for drone testing. One of the six, the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, includes the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, along with locations in Pendleton and Tillamook, among its test ranges.
In fact, the first FAA-approved test flight in Oregon for the Pan-Pacific test range took place Tuesday at the range in Pendleton, participants at the UAV conference learned Wednesday.
Flights launching from Central Oregon are not far behind, according to Brian Whiteside, who manages the Warm Springs test site.
“We’re fairly close …” he said. “We’re in the final stages now of the approval process. I’d say we’re within a month.”
Along with updates on the national test sites, topics at the conference, which continues today, include new UAV technology and insurance options for UAV makers.
The FAA has been charged with writing the regulations to integrate UAV flights into the nation’s airspace. Whoever figures out how to build technology to the FAA’s final standards, Whiteside said, will become an industry leader — and he hopes it will happen in Oregon.
According to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the U.S. in the first three years of integration, with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion, said Gretchen West, the association’s executive vice president.
“We know commercial drones, commercial UAS is a huge market that’s coming. It’s here, actually, and it’s just going to get bigger,” she said. However, “there’s a lot we need to figure out before we realize the true potential of this technology.”