The Federal Aviation Administration is scrambling to regulate the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems – otherwise known as drones – and research done in Oregon will help determine the rules that all commercial drone users must abide by.
The FAA currently grants permits for research and everyday people can fly them as a hobby, but right now, the FAA doesn't allow drones to be used commercially at all.
"(The testing program) is just getting off the ground, no pun intended," said Rick Spinrad, director of research at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Spinrad helped craft an application hundreds of pages long to woo the FAA to pick Oregon as a testing ground. The application was a joint effort between OSU, Economic Development for Central Oregon and the state.
Oregon was granted three testing sites that are being set up in Tillamook, Warm Springs and Pendleton. Oregon became one of only eight states to be granted the honor by collectively applying with Alaska and Hawaii.
"You've got the arctic, you've got the tropics, you've got every kind of environment," said Spinrad, about the diversity of landscapes and climate in the three states that made the partnership desirable.
Spinrad said the FAA wants specific questions answered by the test flights – including how drones affect the environment, how safely they can be navigated and how radio frequencies might conflict with surroundings.
Exactly who will get to fly is unclear, but Spinrad said priority will likely be given to those from the 80 Oregon companies with a stake in the industry.
Many of those companies have a limited customer base right now because commercial use is unapproved. The FAA is even sending out warning letters to companies who are using drones in that capacity.
The testing sites give Oregon a head start in a multi-billion dollar industry, Spinrad said. In 10 years, Spinrad said, the drone business could be worth $200 million a year in Oregon alone with 300 jobs.
"I think (drones) could be as revolutionary to commerce in this country as the cell phone," Spinrad said.
But the pace of the revolution raises concerns about privacy and safety.
"Hopefully, the FAA will get ahead of this," said Captain Sean Cassidy, the safety coordinator of the Air Line Pilots Association, about the growing popularity of drones. "The problem is if you keep on driving up the numbers of folks that are operating these machines, the potential also increases that they're going to be used in a reckless manner."
Cassidy said the sooner the guidelines are determined, the better for safety.
Safety concerns are a reminder of what's at stake during the testing that will begin in Oregon in the coming months. It's research with an unknown deadline, yet the pressure to yield results is soaring.
Congress mandated that the FAA integrate drones into the airspace by 2015. Experts said that deadline is unlikely to be met.
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