By Barney Lerten, KTVZ.COM
BEND, Ore. — Central Oregon’s once high-flying aviation industry, hit hard by the Great Recession, could soar once more, if a proposal flies that would allow unmanned aerial systems – known to many as “drone” planes – to be test-flown over a large swath of desert southeast of Bend.An aide to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Tuesday their office is sending to the Federal Aviation Administration a proposal from Economic Development for Central Oregon’s aviation recruitment committee.“To assure that all the implications of this proposal are fully explored, we ask that you take the steps necessary to provide relevant feedback to the Central Oregon Aviation Recruitment Committee on the possibility of a UAS testing range in Oregon,” the senator’s office told the FAA.Central Oregonians involved in the effort are proposing that legislation be drafted to allow such flight testing at times when the military is not making use of the Juniper Military Operations Area, or MOA, within an hour’s drive of Bend, and similar areas in the West.At a meeting last week with congressional aides, leaders of the Central Oregon UAS proposal were urged to seek local support before the next session of Congress can take up the issue. As a result, Bend city councilors are being asked to sign a letter of support for the drone aircraft testing at their Wednesday night meeting.According to background provided to Wyden, fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden, unmanned aerial systems, known as UAS, have become a key tool to find and destroy terror groups and in other battle action, but also have numerous potential peacetime uses, from border patrol to wildlife management, weather monitoring and patrolling fires or pipelines, as well as border patrols or drug interdiction.More than a third of all planes ordered by the Air Force next year will be UAS, which are being developed in sizes ranging from insects to airliners. In fact, there are predictions that drones will replace nearly every manned plane by mid-century.The demand for such planes also is helping the struggling aerospace industry, and is the only segment expected to grow significantly in the next few years.But research and development work has been restricted by FAA rules that sharply limit where they can be flown, primarily in so-called “restricted airspace.” And that’s meant wait times of six months or longer for testing.“I think we’re trying to set the stage” for what could bring UAS manufacturers to Bend to test such aircraft, Collins Hemingway of Bend, leading the region’s aviation recruitment effort, said Tuesday.“Central Oregon is a great place to test, and after testing, Central Oregon is a great place to assemble and manufacture” the planes, he said.“For our aviation experience here, it’s a nice segue into another sector that has even more potential than general aviation,” the focus that brought Lancair, later Columbia and then Cessna, to Bend, as well as Epic Air, both of which hit turbulent times and are now closed.Military planes such as the Oregon Air National Guard use the large stretch of remote desert for training flights. “They have first call on it – we’re just asking (to test there) when they are not using it.”“It’s well-marked on all the aviation maps, has been for 50 years,” said Hemingway, a pilot like other members of the recruitment committee. “Pilots are used to going around it.”“Roughly 80 percent is public land, it’s rural, it’s remote, unpopulated – what better place to test drones?” he said.Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary and UAS manufacturer, uses a former Navy bombing range at Boardman in northeast Oregon for such tests, but it’s “booked up all the time,” Hemingway said.Hemingway said despite the closure of Cessna and Epic Air, there are still numerous Central Oregonians with expertise in composites and aviation, and others who left but would be glad to get a chance to return, should the opportunity present itself.