Guard starts drone flights from Pendleton airport

PENDLETON — The Oregon Army National Guard has begun flying drones over civilian airspace from the airport in Pendleton, using a smaller, unarmed version of the Predator drone.

The Guard's drone operation has for about a decade been sharing space nearby with the Navy at a bombing range near Boardman, where jets from Whidbey Island naval Air Station on Puget Sound simulate low-level attacks, The Oregonian newspaper reported.

With approval from federal aviation authorities, the four Guard drones will fly from Eastern Oregon Regional Airport using nearby wheat fields to work on aerial surveillance in combat.

The Guard gathered journalists and local leaders Tuesday for an initial flight of an RQ7B Shadow.

The craft is 11 feet long with a wingspan of 14 feet and is equipped with infrared and video cameras that account for much of its $800,000 price tag. It is a smaller, and unarmed, version of the Predators the U.S. military uses against suspected terrorists, the Oregonian said.

It took off with a sound that Chief Warrant Officer Mark Braeme described as “an unmuffled lawn mower engine on steroids.” It flew at 3,000 feet and did two one-mile loops at about 75 mph.

Flights are expected twice a month initially, increasing to once a week. When pilots need to land or take off, the radio-controlled drones are to be flown in a holding pattern to the north, at 3,500 feet, Braeme said.

The drones flown from Pendleton won't be peeking at civilians, said Sgt. Eric Smidt, spokesman for the 27-member platoon that flies them.

“Our cameras are here to do military training,” he said. “As military personnel, we are not allowed to look in on civilians.”

Interest in drones is high in the sparsely populated northeastern Oregon region, which hopes to attract manufacturers, the East Oregonian newspaper reported.

Oregon State University has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to use the same 100-square-mile area the Guard is using, and there's increasing interest in using drones for agricultural research.

Director Philip Hamm says the Hermiston Agriculture Research and Extension Center has been launching drones since April for research into using them to detect water and nitrogen deficiencies in crops.

He said a research station in Adams northeast of Pendleton has asked the FAA for permission to fly drones over its own property and 14 acres of private farmland.


Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com

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