Outside Kah-Nee-Ta Resort on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, parking lots that once catered to casino goers are now empty—leaving a great deal of unused space. To Aurolyn Stwyer, that swath of parking lot represents opportunity.
Stwyer has a vision of turning one paved section—larger than a football field—into a 'drone amusement park' where manufacturers can test their equipment and kids can learn to fly them.
In mid September, Stwyer took the Source Weekly on a tour of the reservation's Unmanned Aerial Systems Innovation Center, now under construction, where drone technology is fast becoming a major player in the reservation's economy. The 5,000-square-foot Innovation Center is about a month from completion, and Stwyer is marking the days until the grand opening. The center, located on the lower level of the tribe's Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, will help fill space once occupied by the resort's casino operations. In 2011, the casino closed and relocated 13 miles away to the village of Warm Springs along Highway 26 where traffic and tourism dollars flow more freely.
"We are going to provide training for individuals interested in getting the ground license to fly commercial drones," she explains. The Innovation Center will contain 17 work stations fully equipped with all the latest drone technology that will teach using flight simulation. Tribal leaders are also discussing student opportunities with OSU-Cascades and Central Oregon Community College.
But that's not where the plans stop. Two other large rooms—which will accommodate 25 and 36 people respectively—will be used for instruction in the latest aerial research applications that are emerging in the fast-growing industry. "Our goal is to provide more jobs and to enhance the resort, which has been here since 1964," Stwyer explains. Additionally, Warm Springs has entered into talks to manufacture unmanned aerial system vehicles that will be used to monitor power transmission lines.
Plans include enclosing the park under netting that will eliminate the need for licensing, allowing individuals to use the space to fly drones freely. Talks are underway with the Oregon State Parks Department for funding.
The Warm Springs Reservation is one of three Federal Aviation Administration-approved sites in Oregon that are part of the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex. The Pan Pacific Complex is one of six regions where intensive drone testing and research is underway. Tillamook and Pendleton are the other two Oregon sites.
New technology seems to be emerging so rapidly that it's hard to track—even for industry insiders. But they all have a common goal: seeing drone technology result in commercial, industrial, and agricultural cost savings. With that, they expect the commercial application of drones to soar.
ABI Research, based in Oyster Bay, New York, is forecasting that the small unmanned aerial systems market will surpass $30 billion by 2025. Until now, drone technology has primarily been utilized by the defense market, but commercial sector growth will surpass the defense market in 2017, according to ABI. The commercial sector is where the greatest long-term growth lies, says Richard Solis, Research Director at ABI.
"Many businesses within the commercial sector are willing to spend money on unmanned aerial vehicle-related services and applications that reduce costs and provide better service," Solis said in a news release. The consumer market will follow the commercial market, achieving the second highest overall growth, while defense sector growth will remain flat.
Beyond learning to fly drones, the Warm Springs UAS Innovation Center will focus on research in three specific areas: monitoring transmission lines, improving agricultural outcomes, and fighting wildfires.
The reservation contains 20 miles of de-energized high voltage transmission lines once operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. The test center will focus on how drones can be used to monitor transmission lines over long distances, thereby reducing inspection and maintenance costs as well as human safety concerns.
As a sovereign nation, the Warm Springs Reservation has control over its natural resources. "We can collect data using drones counting our horse, elk, and deer populations," Stwyer says. The wild horse population is adversely impacting food habitat for deer and elk. Other applications will examine climate change impacts on traditional foods on which the native population depends, which could also prove useful to the general agricultural community.
Another focus of UAS research at Warm Springs will be on wildfire concerns. "Due to our sovereign status, we have the ability to conduct large controlled burns without too much bureaucracy involved," says Stwyer. Large areas—over 4,500 acres—will be burned in the spring and fall. Drones will be used for lighting the burns, tracking hot spots and producing instantaneous aerial maps that will assist firefighters day and night. Drones will also be able to fly through heavy smoke, providing instant data that can be used to strategically contain fires while protecting those who fight them.
In August, 250 people—including growers and representatives of government agencies—staged a two-day demonstration at the UAS Test Range in Pendleton that they labeled "The Ag Drone Rodeo." It allowed growers to observe real-time data gathering followed by immediate crop health reports, according to Jeff Lorton, program manager for the Oregon Future Farm—part of the UAS test site. He sees many advantages to using drone technology for agriculture.
"Agriculture faces a rather large and real problem in that it doesn't have the labor that it needs today, and tomorrow it will have even less." The labor force is aging and younger people aren't filling the gap, Lorton says. Automation, he says, will be a key to the future of agriculture in North America.
Lorton says that the Pendleton UAS Test Range is demonstrating how drones can help fill that labor gap. "We're going to leverage data, mobility, satellite, drones and robotics to make agriculture not just more efficient but more viable so more people can remain independent growers."
He says agriculture year to year maintains acreage but loses ownership, resulting in consolidation and larger-scale farming. Lorton also suggests that drone technology is able to analyze the health of a crop sooner than the naked eye, which could result in less use of chemicals for weed and pest control. He also says that drones make crop monitoring cheaper than conventional aviation. "With a drone, growers can monitor their crops themselves after making a one-time investment, learning to fly it, and understanding the use of crop sensors and imaging."
As for the consumer, "The biggest advantage of crop monitoring is that it will enable better predictions of harvest—which enable better logistics to market—which means there will be less spoilage so prices can come down," says Lorton.
Another huge barrier-breaker for agricultural and commercial use of drones was an easing in August of regulations that required commercial users to acquire a pilot's license to fly them. Now commercial users need only pass a certification safety test. As a result, Lorton expects the commercial drone industry to burgeon in the next 12 months.
The drone industry has strong roots in Central Oregon. During the last recession, the aviation manufacturing industry in the region took a big nosedive. In 2009, Cessna Aircraft Company announced it was closing its Bend plant and eliminating 200 jobs. In Central Oregon's Jefferson, Crook, and Deschutes counties, the aircraft and aerospace industry lost 80 percent of its GDP production.
Industry leaders, along with members of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), began exploring alternative economic answers as Bend's unemployment rate reached 17 percent.
According to Executive Director Roger Lee, drone technology development surfaced as an intriguing potential answer.
SOAR Oregon was born from that effort. Based in Bend, it's a statewide not-for-profit economic development organization focused on the development of the UAS industry in Oregon. Its Executive Director, Chuck Allen, says SOAR is connecting industry sectors such as aviation, advanced manufacturing, high tech, software development and education to promote UAS business growth in the region. Allen says the industry represents more than a cool drone flying around in the sky. "It's about the data and the information they gather and how it is processed. That's what the industry is all about."
Allen says software being developed is able to quickly and accurately analyze information that can be used in the maintenance of transmission lines, pipelines, railroad tracks and much more. Gathering data over a thousand miles of railroad track is a big job, but drone data technology can potentially make the work more efficient and feasible, he explains.
SOAR has helped fund UAS technological advancement with $327,000 in direct grant money while facilitating another million dollars in private investment in the region.
EDCO's Roger Lee says, "The recent development of the commercial drone industry is remarkable given the fact there wasn't a commercial industry three years ago." He says it's exciting to see the industry taking off in terms of research and jobs after seven years of work to promote it in Central Oregon. "We're no longer racing to the starting line to get it off the ground. The fire has oxygen and it's taking off."
Both Lee and Allen also expect another development that will boost the commercial drone industry. At present, flying drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) is not permitted. They expect that regulation to soon be relaxed by the FAA, enabling longer-distance flying that would benefit countless efforts including search and rescue.
Oregon also has many of the leading drone manufacturers in the world—led by, among others, Insitu of Hood River. The company has inspired other spinoffs, many of which are located in the Columbia River Gorge area.
FLIR Systems is a leading infrared technology company helping pave the way for the drone industry that also has a large Oregon business footprint. Infrared technology is highly effective in search and rescue missions.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx summed up the current state of the drone industry in a recent press statement. "People are captivated by the limitless possibilities unmanned aircraft offer, and they are already creating business opportunities in this exciting new field."
As UAS drone technology transitions from defense to a burgeoning commercial industry, Central Oregon is helping lead the charge.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is helping lead the development of the commercial drone economy in Central Oregon. Brian Jennings sits down with some of the people involved in this program: