Agreement is the first critical step to establish a UAS focus in Central Oregon
Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) and Oregon State University (OSU) have signed an agreement to develop technologies related to unmanned aerial systems that will benefit OSU’s academic and research programs, particularly natural resource management. Simultaneously, the agreement would help EDCO incubate new UAS startups and bring additional UAS businesses to the region and to Oregon.
EDCO conservatively estimates the potential economic impact of recruiting UAS companies to the region to be approximately 450 employees, $28 million in payroll, and an overall economic impact of nearly $75 million within a seven-year period.
“To diversify Central Oregon’s economy, we systematically review all the industries EDCO targets,” noted Roger Lee, executive director of EDCO. “We’ve now identified the growth segment in aviation—the UAS sector—that capitalizes on our region’s natural and human resources. We see UAS, and other technology initiatives, as key steps in growing jobs and economic activity in the tri-county area and beyond.”
“The signing of this MOU,” Lee added “is an important step in attracting UAS testing activities. In turn, that groundwork will attract industry to either relocate or start up in Central Oregon.”
The initial goal of the partnership is to establish one or more specific projects in which OSU researchers can conduct remote-sensing and engineering experiments, and EDCO can create an initial series of UAS test flights for those experiments. Through special licenses called Certificates of Authorization (COAs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizes test flights.
As a public partner, OSU benefits from the partnership by creating a test infrastructure to advance technologies such as robotics and sensor development and deploy them in ways beneficial to a number of OSU academic programs, including engineering, forestry, agriculture and other earth sciences.
“For OSU, the ability to test in our backyard is exciting,” said Rick Spinrad, vice president for Research at OSU. Current testing for the university that measures snowpack from the air is taking place in Colorado, for example.
“It could be quite beneficial and efficient to conduct these tests over the Cascades, closer to university resources, receiving real time data and working with Oregon companies,” he said. Spinrad oversees OSU’s substantial research efforts, which last year translated to over $260 million in support.
Last year, EDCO’s aviation recruitment committee developed strategic goals to establish Central Oregon as an R&D center for UAS research and as an incubator for UAS businesses operating in the Northwest. An important component of the plan, required by the FAA, is a public partner to initiate testing.
“With this agreement with Oregon State University,” said Collins Hemingway, volunteer chair of EDCO’s Aviation Recruitment Committee, “our initiative gains major ground in its goal to establish a UAS industry in Central Oregon.” Hemmingway also serves on the Deschutes Land Trust board of directors and is a former senior executive at the Microsoft Corporation. Hemingway writes and lectures about business and technology, has a consultancy on business and marketing and serves as an executive coach.
According to numerous studies, the current UAS market is $5 billion and is projected to grow annually by ten percent. Applications of particular benefit to the Northwest include firefighting, search and rescue, rural law enforcement, infrastructure monitoring, low-impact inventory of plant and wildlife populations, and overall resource and land management.
Currently, UAS companies face long delays in securing air space to test new technologies, which include airframes, controls, sensor packages and software. Few places in the country meet the safety protocols required for testing by the FAA. Delays of six months or more for only a few days of testing are common for some smaller UAS firms.
Because Central Oregon has large expanses of airspace that are over lightly populated rural areas and away from major airports and air traffic corridors, and because the region has a history of developing and testing experimental manned aircraft, the region believes it can obtain approval for the testing of experimental unmanned systems while meeting the FAA’s strict safety protocols.
Under the EDCO-OSU partnership, the initial series of test flights will use the COA method, but the hope is that the FAA will designate Central Oregon as one of six permanent testing areas in the nation. The proposal to create six new permanent sites is currently before Congress.
EDCO has gathered support from both public and private entities, Central Oregon’s congressional delegation, the Oregon legislature, Governor Kitzhaber, and cities and counties to establish one or more test sites in the region.
“We are all working together to make UAS testing a reality in Central Oregon,” said Hemingway. “The sooner we start, the sooner we attract high-quality companies and start adding well-paying jobs.”