Oregon’s Federal Drone Testing Site is Thriving behind the Scenes

Officially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) supports seven drone testing sites nationwide.  The sites are located in New York, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas,Virginia and Alaska. But there’s actually an eighth, albeit unofficial, site – tucked away in eastern Oregon. And it’s been growing fast, even faster than some of its official counterparts.

All of the FAA test sites allow drone companies to design and test their prototypes, usually in fairly open environments away from population centers that might pose a noise and safety problem.  New York’s NUAIR site has gone so far as to develop a 50-miles long drone “corridor” that allows drones to test various kinds of mapping and de;livery operations.  The site has even created a bridge across the border to Canada.

Oregon’s site hasn’t progressed that far but it’s drawing the attention of a growing number of drone companies whose operations are fueling the local economy.  A brand new Radisson Hotel opened last spring  to accommodate visiting drone pilots.  One drone company which plans to relocate here has even booked a local bed and breakfast two years in advance.  And local construction companies have also benefited: several dozen workers have been needed to build hangars at two refurbished local airports where drone fliers store their aircraft between test missions.

The existence of the two airports was the key to getting the Oregon test site up and running.  Both had a storied history, having served as the training ground for military aircraft used during the famous “Doolittle Raids” on Tokyo during World War II. The airports fell into disuse after the war and might never have been utilized again except for a chance visit of a US Air National Guard colonel to the area back in 2012.

The airport management had just named an economic development director to investigate whether the sleepy site might be upgraded for commercial aviation.  The colonel, who was looking for a UAV testing site, told the development director that drones were the “future.”   Over the next several years the two men collaborated in securing major federal grants and contracts to support the expansion of the airport infrastructure for dual military and civilian drone testing.  The site’s been growing steadily – but quietly – ever since.

The site is especially popular with the FAA and the Pentagon because this part of Oregon has virtually unlimited airspace available – about 14,000 square miles, far more than the FAA site in Texas, for example, where the tech and aerospace industry is already highly developed.  And the cost of doing business in eastern Oregon is relatively low, a huge draw for drone industry start-ups.

But it’s not just start-ups.  In recent years, the Oregon test site has hosted dozens of major tech organizations, including Airbus, Yamaha, NASA and Verizon. Yamaha is testing unmanned helicopters that can dispense herbicides more efficiently and cheaply than traditional crop-dusting planes.  Spright, an Arizona-based company, is piloting aerial deliveries of medical supplies between a health clinic and a laboratory using remotely piloted drones.

Why are drone companies increasingly attracted to eastern Oregon?  Because unlike other FAA sites, there’s virtually no government red tape.  The local town, anxious to attract new business to the area, prides itself on getting tech companies up and running quickly.  In addition, there are a growing number of mobile command centers located in surrounding areas that allow drone companies to test commercial drone applications in real world settings, often negotiating deals with local landowners to obtain ready access to their properties.

Local officials say the next stage in the development of the Oregon test site is to have some of these same drone companies establish new manufacturing plants in the area.  The main barrier is the need for a more skilled labor force.   Nearby Blue Mountain Community College now offers drone operator and maintenance courses. A local high school has groomed a talented robotics team.  Some of the major companies that have settled in the area, like Spright, are beginning to offer training programs for tech jobs that pay $60,000 a year, a huge attraction in a rural town where wages in the service sector tend to be low.

Right now, eastern Oregon’s role as an unofficial – and thriving – FAA drone test site is still not widely known.  Technically, the site is an affiliate of one the seven officially designated FAA test sites located in Fairbanks, Alaska  (In fact, you won’t find it listed on the FAA’s website). But with a whopping 1,000 drone flights daily, and more federal contracts on the way, a site that began more by accident than design is quickly taking on a life of its own.

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