By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

FAA authorizes broad drone testing

The announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration has generated excitement among fans of the technology, who predict increased jobs and the use of drones for everything from delivering packages to fighting wildfires and raising grapes. Critics, on the other hand, are concerned about the use of drones for everything from noisy nuisance to privacy invasion to acts of crime or terrorism.

Either way, Yamhill County may be at the forefront.

Last year, the county entered into an agreement to include local farmland and vineyards in drone testing authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration, as an adjunct to a Tillamook testing site. County Commissioner Allen Springer predicted the agreement would lead to new jobs locally.

The announcement also may have significance for McMinnville’s Northwest UAV Propulsion, which designs and manufactures engines for commercial civilian uses of the remote-controlled aircraft. The company touts their potential use in agriculture.

McMinnville Engineering and Aerospace Sciences Academy students also are studying drones, for use in surveying natural resources.

The FAA chose Oregon State University to join 14 others in the nation’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Mississippi State University will play the lead role in the project, which was granted $5 million in initial funding for research, training and certification.

The announcement named test sites in Pendleton, Tillamook and Warm Springs, along with three others nationwide. The FAA said it would grant “blanket” authorization to all six sites to test drone flights below 200 feet.

The authorization allows drones weighing less than 55 pounds to be flown up to 200 feet above ground level, except in restricted airspace or close proximity to airports and heliports. Operators must keep their drones within visual contact, however.

Michael Wing, director of the Aerial Information System Lab at OSU, said the college will work on low-altitude operations safety, detection and avoidance, human factors and certification of flight operations.

“We envision some early work in Oregon being done with things such as wildfire monitoring and low-altitude precision monitoring for agriculture or wildlife operations,” Wing said.

OSU has obtained 30 FAA agreements for locations around Oregon. Potential applications include fire surveys, vineyard health assessments and identification of salmon spawning beds in rivers and streams. Speaking about the latter, Wing said drone observations of spawning salmon proved more successful and less costly than helicopter observations.

Although the announcement was limited to commercial uses, the hobby market is also growing rapidly, which has led to some high-profile mishaps.

Last June, Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, banned drones in national parks following several dramatic incidents. He cited, among other things, complaints about noise, crashes and harassment of wildlife.

The National Recreation and Parks Association warned in March that park managers should be prepared for the eventual descent of hordes of drone hobbyists. And the FAA also issued an advisory before the 2015 Super Bowl, warning fans not to bring drones to the game.

Drones have also been widely used by the military to target enemies in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are touted by the U.S. for their “surgical” accuracy, but widely blamed for causing unintended civilian deaths.

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