FAA decision means more unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — are coming to Oregon skies


By Mike Francis 

Unmanned aerial vehicles, from high-altitude balloons to hand-launched aircraft, apparently will ply the skies above Warm Springs, Tillamook and Pendleton followingthe Federal Aviation Administration’s approval Monday of a regional application that includes at least three test ranges in Oregon.

Oregon boosters had hoped the state would be among those selected as development sites for the growing UAV sector.

“It’s great news,” said Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, a business association that has pushed for expansion of a pilotless aviation industry in central Oregon.

Lee said “12 to 15 companies” had told Edco they would consider setting up operations in central Oregon if the area succeeded in winning the FAA designation as a test range.

The proposal, which was officially presented to the government by the University of Alaska, involves test sites near Pendleton, Tillamook and in central Oregon, said Lt. Col. Alan Gronewold, an Oregon National Guard officer who worked closely with the city of Pendleton for its submission to join the program.

The Oregon National Guard has been flying unmanned aerial vehicles near Boardman and in civilian airspace near Pendleton. Gronewold said the FAA’s approval of expanded test ranges in Oregon should make it easier for operators to fly aircraft within the test ranges.

The Tillamook range is hosted by Tillamook’s Near Space Corp., which makes and operates high-altitude balloons for scientific and commercial uses. Near Space also has a launch site near Madras, near the central Oregon test range.

The University of Alaska proposal also includes test ranges in Alaska and Hawaii. The FAA said the university’s proposal “includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation.”

In addition to the University of Alaska proposal, the FAA said Monday it had selected proposals from Nevada, North Dakota, New York, Texas and Virginia. A Washington state proposal was not chosen.

Economic development officials hope that Oregon will become a hotbed for emerging UAV applications, such as search and rescue, forest management and what Lee calls “precision agriculture.”

But drone aircraft, best known for their role in delivering lethal strikes against terrorist targets in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, also have caused controversy abroad and domestically. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and others have condemned the killings of civilians by drone airstrikes.

Closer to home, Oregon lawmakers, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union, have sought to curb the use of drones for surveillance or law enforcement purposes. Some local law enforcement agencies have sought federal approval to use the aircraft.

Tom Towslee, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, said the senator had worked with Economic Development for Central Oregon to persuade the FAA to expand the number of UAV test ranges.

“We have always supported this as a way to create jobs and support economic development in central Oregon,” said Towslee, who noted that Oregon offers diverse landscapes, from ocean to high desert, for drone research.

In its announcement, the FAA cited the diversity of sites and climatic zones in the University of Alaska proposal.