High-desert drones in Central Oregon


ben-blogOregon State University and Economic Development for Central Oregon have signed an agreement to collaborate on research and commercialization in the fast-growing unmanned aerial vehicles industry.

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By Ben Jacklet

Oregon State University and Economic Development for Central Oregon have signed an agreement to collaborate on research and commercialization in the fast-growing unmanned aerial vehicles industry.

The economic goal of the agreement is to recruit businesses to Central Oregon by offering testing and research opportunities in the skies over the High Desert. EDCO’s executive director, Roger Lee, says he has heard from “more than a dozen” companies eager to test out their systems.

Currently most drone testing is done in military airspace, where waiting lists can run long and changes in plans can arrive unexpectedly and without explanation. Smaller companies often have to wait months to test out their innovations. “We have what the industry lacks,” says Lee. “Open airspace and not a lot of cloudy days.”

The $5 billion UAV industry is growing by at least 10 percent annually, mostly due to military contracts. The New Yorker recently reported that the Obama Administration authorized more drone missile strikes in Pakistan during its first year in power than the Bush Administration did in eight years. The Columbia Gorge-based drone powerhouse Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, has grown to 800 employees and $400 million in revenue, and recently landed a $250 million special ops contract with the military.

Next will come civilian applications. Unmanned aircraft are being used to measure snowpack and monitor wildlife in remote locations, and many more uses are bound to develop with time, as the FAA amends its rules to make room for UAVs. OSU’s agreement to get involved in the industry could bring new opportunities in natural resources, forestry, engineering, agriculture and oceanography. The university’s vice president for research, Rick Spinrad, says faculty members could one day get hands-on experience in the industry. “That’s one of the attractions for us,” he says, “having scientists in Corvallis monitoring or even controlling flights in Central Oregon, right from their offices in Corvallis.”

Over the long term, the research could transform the practice of collecting data about the natural and man-made worlds. More immediately, the agreement could bring jobs to Central Oregon, which invested heavily in aviation only to get burned by the collapse of the private plane industry. EDCO estimates that the initiative will bring 450 jobs over seven years, with $28 million in new payroll and $75 million in total economic impact.

The eventual goal is to make Central Oregon one of six designated test sites nationally for unmanned planes.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business. Read more about the Bend economy in Jacklet’s story “Bend is Back! Sort of” and about the unmanned plane business.

 




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