FAA drone testing approval sought for Gorge airport

The Klickitat County Economic Development Department submitted a proposal earlier this month that would make the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport a site approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for the testing of the integration of drones into U.S. commercial airspace.

According to Innovate Washington, a state economic development agency, KCEDD is part of a consortium of state, county, and private entities that were involved in the proposal, which would link six other test sites around Washington to create the Pacific Northwest Unmanned Aerial Systems Flight Center. If approved the flight center, which would include facilities in Yakima, Moses Lake, Grays Harbor, Dallesport, and two other sites in northeast Washington, would be one of six in the U.S. to receive the FAA designation.

The proposal is in response to a push by the FAA to have unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly referred to as UAVs or drones — fully integrated into U.S. airspace by Sept. 30, 2015. The Congressional FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 calls for the creation of these six test sites around the U.S. in order to aid in the transition.

Dave McClure, director of KCEDD, said that although the FAA designation wouldn’t come with any funding, the county is highly interested in making sure the Gorge’s booming UAV business stays that way.

“The UAV industry is a real important economic driver to the county and to the Gorge,” he noted.

Bart Phillips, vice president of economic development for Innovate Washington, said the flight center could end up providing a number of benefits, including “attracting additional aerospace research and development dollars, providing users with cost-effective, safe flight testing facilities, and fostering the development of more companies and high quality jobs in Washington.”

Currently, drones are primarily used for military purposes, but UAV manufacturers are looking to expand beyond defense contracts and use the machines for search and rescue operations, snow pack analysis, agricultural management, and other tasks.

While UAV companies are enthused about the upcoming expansion of drone use, many citizens are concerned about the litany of privacy issues that could arise as more drones take to American skies.

McClure said Dallesport residents needn’t worry about drones buzzing over their roofs if the proposal is approved and noted UAVs will stay “within the footprint of the airport” and that there is “no flight plan [for drones] in or out of the Gorge.” He explained drones that do fly over the airport facilities would be limited to “a very low ceiling” of 500 feet.

As of now, the proposal doesn’t call for the construction of any new buildings on the airport grounds, but McClure said that could eventually be a possibility.

According to an Associated Press report, at least 55 other proposals had been submitted from 37 states and McClure acknowledged that competition for the FAA designation was stiff. He said the FAA is supposed to announce the approved test sites by the end of the year.

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