PENDLETON, Ore. — Northeastern Oregon’s drone testing range will encompass the city of Pendleton and several hundred square miles of land southeast of town.
The Federal Aviation Administration approved the University of Alaska’s application Monday to be one of six testing entities for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The university will coordinate drone testing on at least a dozen ranges in Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska — including the one in Pendleton.
The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow drones’ commercial use, so the ranges will give more private companies the ability to test and develop their products.
Officials who put together Pendleton’s drone application would not release the map until after an agreement is signed with the FAA in the coming weeks. They said the FAA could adjust the range in the interim.
Collins Hemingway, interim executive director of the Oregon Unmanned Aerial Systems Board, said the area southeast of Pendleton was chosen because of its variety of terrain. The East Oregonian reports that the vast majority of the area, which encompasses parts of the Elkhorn and Blue mountains, has little population and air traffic.
Testing for the next few years will take place in the remote areas, he said.
“The idea is to test these initially well away from any population and well away from aviation traffic,” Hemingway said.
The safety policies and procedures for Pendleton’s drone range are still to be written, said Eastern Oregon Regional Airport manager Steve Chrisman, who will serve as a temporary range manager.
Money not guaranteed
No guarantees of money come with the FAA’s approval of the University of Alaska’s drone testing in Pendleton, and it’s still unclear how much will be needed and where it will come from.
“It’s hard to tell what it will all look like at this point,” Chrisman said. “This week’s FAA approval made this all real. Before, it was just a hopeful opportunity.”
Even if the money does materialize, experts say it’s unlikely that drones will have much freedom until decades down the road.
Last year, Congress directed the agency to grant unmanned aircraft access to U.S. skies by September 2015. The FAA is developing guidelines for drone use, but it said the process would take longer than Congress expected. The agency said it plans to propose a rule next year for small unmanned aircraft.
“It’s going to be baby steps,” Hemingway said. “Somewhere in the future, UPS’ cargo plane will take off without a pilot from Memphis and fly to Portland, and probably be unloaded by robots. But that will be 20 years from now.”