New Oregon nonprofit's grants help develop drones

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PORTLAND — A new Oregon nonprofit organization is capitalizing on the state's recently approved commercial drone test ranges to improve the economy and spur drone-related jobs.

The Oregon Unmanned Systems Business Enterprise started to solicit proposals on Thursday for matching grants that further unmanned aerial technologies in the state. Based in Bend, the nonprofit is funded for two years with $822,000 in state money.

The initiative comes a month after the Federal Aviation Administration announced six drone test sites around the country — including ranges in Pendleton, Tillamook and Warm Springs. The University of Alaska will coordinate drone testing on ranges in Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska.

Drones' commercial use is still not legal, and businesses have to apply for special time-consuming, expensive and uncertain permits that have barred most drone entrepreneurs.

The new test ranges will offer the first chance to locally test unmanned aerial vehicle technology and will likely be open to almost any unmanned aircraft-vehicle business that has the right equipment and meets standards for operator qualifications.

The nonprofit wants to help companies and other entities develop and test UAVs that can directly benefit the state and its communities. It will distribute grants ranging from $25,000 to $75,000, though smaller and larger grant proposals will also be considered.

Proposals can include projects that help existing drone companies expand, assist companies in winning new contracts, or recruit firms to do testing in the state and/or establish themselves in Oregon.

Preference will be given to projects that have greatest benefit to overall economic development in the state — especially those that can be used in precision agriculture, search and rescue, and forestry management.

The nonprofit was spearheaded by the Economic Development for Central Oregon in Bend and developed with the help of industry experts.

"We looked at the aviation sector and said UAVs are the most promising thing. And that turned out to be true," said Ruth Lindley, the organization's marketing manager.

Oregon's test ranges could also economically benefit entire communities, said Steve Chrisman, the economic development coordinator in Pendleton, where the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport will serve as one of the test ranges. Pendleton plans to apply for one of the drone grants, Chrisman said.

The deadline for submitting the drone grant applications is February 28.