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Drone Economy Could Bring Jobs, Investment to Oregon

Friday, November 28, 2014


Photo Credit: iStock

Drone industry experts are bullish that Oregon is poised to become a national hub for unmanned aircraft and potentially bring in thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of investment.

The new drone economy could provide new jobs while benefiting things like search and rescue missions, energy production and other commercial businesses, according to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden.

In Nov. Wyden asked the Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday to stop dragging its feet on establishing new regulations for drones, often referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

The regulations the FAA is developing is for commercial drones, and may include keeping the aircraft in the view of the operator and not flying over people. This would rule out private companies using drones for surveillance, but would allow for things like farmers using drones to water their crops. 

“I am concerned that proposed regulations on small, commercial unmanned aircraft will be costly, needlessly restrictive and hinder research and development for the growing UAS industry,” Wyden wrote. “The FAA needs to act quickly to alleviate these concerns and issue guidelines for developers and operators of unmanned aircraft that will give certainty to the UAS industry and ensure the safety and privacy of Americans.

Of six drone test-sites in the U.S. approved by the FAA, three are in Oregon. The three test sites in Oregon are in Tillamook, in Pendleton and the Warm Springs Reservation. They answer to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which supervises all six U.S. test sites, which are also in Alaska and Hawaii.

Steve Chrisman, the manager and economic development director of the Pendleton Airport said his airport applied to be a test range because they wanted to repurpose their large airport and attract high tech and advanced manufacturing companies to the region.

“If we can attract some other UAS companies here and make Oregon a center for excellence for UAS, I think that’s very unique and exciting opportunity for the state,” Chrisman said.

Oregon has a big cluster of drone companies already; there are over 100 companies in Oregon working in UAS in some capacity.

Agricultural and Forestry Uses

“This is, in my mind, the future of aviation,” Chrisman said. “Anyone is kidding themselves thinking it’s not.”

Chrisman said the drone industry is expected to balloon and generated hundreds of billions of dollars per year, with approximately 80 percent of the industry used for agricultural purposes.

The use of drones in agriculture may have an considerable environmental benefit, Chrisman said.

“Oregon State University has a couple of agriculture stations on either side of us. They’re doing all kinds of interesting stuff,” Chrisman said. “One guy is scanning canola crops and can read the nutrient content. They’re (also) scanning fields for moisture content — in potato fields and things like that.”

Photo Credit: iStock

Jessica Metta, the executive director of the Columbia Gorge Technology Alliance, said a number of farmers in the Northwest are interested in using drones for agricultural purposes.

“We’ve had some events recently where we brought in some UAV companies and local farmers together to kind of explore ways they could work together,” Metta said.

A number of fruit farmers are interested in using infrared sensors on flyover missions to see where infestations of bugs may lie, Metta said.

“Some of the companies are also looking at how (UAVs) can be used to fight wildfires, which is a huge concern in this region,” Metta said.

Eric Simpkins is the director of Resource Stewardship Consortia, an Oregon-based company specializing in flying drones in rescue operations and surveying for natural resources. 

His company has also contracted with the state of Oregon with nighttime reconnaissance fly-overs that will help with fighting wildfires. 

“Right now they have very limited information about how fires move during the night time,” Simpkins said. “We hope to conduct some UAS flights at night in the 2015 fire season to give fire managers a lot more information to start their day with.”

Jobs and Training

Darrell Slaughter, the business director of Unmanned Vehicle University, said the expanding use of drones could create between 70,000 and 100,000 jobs in the U.S. Those jobs would encompass a range of diverse fields including insurance, law enforcement, media and everything in between.

With the federal government predicting up to 30,000 drones flying in U.S. airspace by 2020, educators are scrambling to meet the demand. Just last year Central Oregon Community College approved the additions of a two-year degree program that certifies its graduates to fly drones. The program is currently wrapping its inaugural term. 

However, the industry is demanding much more than just pilots for its aircraft.

“Probably what we need now, as much as anything, is an increase in trained data analysts. There’s meta data being obtained by unmanned systems and relatively few people are professionally trained to evaluate that data,” Simpkins said.

Regulations Stalled by Fears

The FAA is scheduled to establish its regulations of unmanned aircraft by September 2015.

Slaughter said the reason it’s been so slow going is because the public has become increasingly suspicious of the technology.

“There are major safety concerns that need to be addressed,” Slaughter said. “If a UAV hits a plane or a jet engine, it could bring it down.”

Many fear that personal privacy could be threatened by drones surveillance, but other are also concerned that drones could potentially take down power lines and cause other hazards.

“It’s important they get this done as soon as possible because these things are selling,” Slaughter said.

The industry has a great deal of potential for growth. The impediment to it right now is the lack of regulation from the FAA, according to Simpkins

“The research needed to allow the FAA to develop regulations that will integrate unmanned air systems into the national airspace system is a multiyear effort,” Simpkins said. “The six test sites across the U.S. the FAA has authorized to conduct that research is getting a real slow start because of the restrictions imposed.”


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