Consortium eyes facility for drones

Research, testing would be done at six Central Washington sites

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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A consortium of Washington business, research, and job development organizations will submit a proposal for development of a research and testing facility for unmanned aircraft systems that would encompass six central Washington locations, with the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake as its hub.

The state agency Innovate Washington and the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland are the lead organizations on the application, which has 10 other state, county and private industry organizations as partners. The proposal is in response to the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to select six U.S. testing facilities for unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones, later this year. Those centers will conduct research aimed at the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system, Innovate Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said in a news release.

The unmanned aircraft can be used for search and rescue operations, acquiring weather data, managing agricultural crops, and analysis of avalanche conditions and snowpack.

The Grant County International Airport would serve as the flight center's principal office and facilities. Test centers would be established in six other sparsely-populated Washington locations with various climate conditions, terrain and other circumstances that could affect aircraft operations. The proposal provides a testing range over the Pacific Ocean near Grays Harbor.

"Siting a new flight center in central Washington will allow the state to

build off of the established strengths of its thriving aerospace industry," said Bart Phillips, vice president for economic development for Innovate Washington.

Other consortium members are the Ports of Moses Lake and Grays Harbor, Washington State University, University of Washington, Washington Army National Guard, the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing at Everett Community College, the Governor's Office of Aerospace, Washington State Department of Commerce and economic development agencies in Klickitat and Grays Harbor counties.

The deadline to submit proposals to the FAA is May 6, and the agency expects to make its selection by the end of the year.