ADAIR VILLAGE — Rep. Peter DeFazio came to Benton County on Friday to see a demonstration of just how much drones can accomplish – and to hear complaints from the state’s emerging unmanned aerial systems industry about how it’s being grounded by federal regulators.
At a miniature airport for remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts in Adair Village, Oregon’s 4th District congressman got a glimpse of some of the drones being used by Oregon State University’s Aerial Information Systems Laboratory, headed by associate professor Michael Wing.
Under Wing’s direction, a pair of grad students launched two drones – each about the size of a medium pizza – into the sky and put them through their paces, buzzing nimbly overhead and coming gently back to earth. Powered by batteries, the four- and six-rotor models can carry cameras capable of shooting video, still and infrared imagery for a wide variety of tasks, from doing aerial reconnaissance for wildland firefighters to locating salmon spawning beds in remote streams to measuring the amount of chlorophyll in budding grapevines.
“We’re doing vineyard flights,” Wing said, citing one example. “With infrared, we can measure the chlorophyll content, and for vintners that can mean the difference between a good bottle of wine and a great bottle of wine.”
But progress in developing all of these useful applications, he said, is being slowed almost to a halt by the Federal Aviation Administration’s glacial rule-making pace. So far, the FAA has issued only a handful of exemptions allowing commercial drone operators to fly their unmanned aircraft (including one to a Corvallis-based company, VDOS LLC). Anyone else who wants to use drones for commercial or research purposes must go through a months-long application process to get approval for even a single test flight.
“We’re trying to get that straightened out,” DeFazio assured him.
As the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, DeFazio has plenty to say about how the FAA goes about regulating this rapidly evolving segment of the aviation industry.
He noted that there are legitimate concerns about managing the large numbers of drones expected to be filling America’s skies in the not-too-distant future. But while air-traffic issues for urban areas are being worked out, he wants the agency to take steps to allow drones now for applications such as agriculture, forestry and pipeline inspection in places where there are few potential conflicts, such as rural areas a safe distance from airports.
“The FAA is a difficult and, as it should be, a very safety-conscious bureaucracy,” he said. “I believe we could move a little more quickly on … programmatic uses outside inhabited areas.”
Following the demonstration in Adair Village, DeFazio attended a roundtable discussion on that topic at OSU, where Wing’s Aerial Information Systems Lab has become a hub for much of the drone development work in the state. Among the 22 people ranged around the long table in an upstairs conference room in the student union were academic researchers, potential end users and a number of heavy hitters in Oregon’s fledgling unmanned aerial systems agency.
Virtually all of them seemed to be chafing under the delays imposed by the FAA. For instance, even though the agency has approved three test ranges for drones in Oregon – one on the coast and two in the eastern part of the state – it still requires an elaborate permitting process before test flights are allowed.
“Oregon has been dealt a very good hand with the marine environment, with the high desert environment, the industry cluster we have here,” said Craig Ladkin, an investment banker and treasurer of SOAR Oregon, a trade group formed to promote the unmanned aerial systems industry. “But none of this matters,” he added, if the rules can’t be streamlined to allow the industry to take off here.
Chad Vargas, manager of Adelsheim Vineyards in Newberg, said Oregon winegrowers could reap major benefits from drone use, from improving yields to chasing off hungry birds, if only the FAA would let them fly in agricultural settings.
“It seems like a perfect place to start this. It’s a controlled environment,” he said. “We’re kind of frustrated we haven’t seen more advancement there.”
Even in areas that already have lots of air traffic, it shouldn’t be too hard to manage the airspace to allow drones to fly as well, said Ryan Jenson of HoneyComb, a Wilsonville company that supplies drones, cameras and software for agricultural and forestry applications.
“It will get solved from the technology standpoint,” he said.
Commercial air traffic is already largely controlled by automated systems, argued Jonathon Evans of SkyWard, a Portland company developing flight operations software for unmanned aircraft. He also pointed out that other developed nations, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, have already worked out regulations for drone operations.
“This is not a novel concept,” he said. “It’s here now.”
DeFazio assured them he would present their concerns during upcoming hearings on the FAA’s reauthorization bill – and that he expected the agency to listen.
“Very much an issue in the reauthorization will be any necessary steps to move things along with drones,” DeFazio said.