Oregon Early Drone Adoption Harbingers National Concerns

DroneWith the FAA approving testing locations in Warm Springs, Pendleton, and Near Space Corp in Tillamook, it looks as though we are nearing the Congress-mandated November 2015 deadline for the FAA to integrate drones in civilian airspace.

The three testing sites in Oregon, along with two others in Alaska and Hawaii, are meant to assist the FAA in drafting a much anticipated set of policies and guidelines in the use of commercial drones. How drones will affect the environment, how safely they can be navigated, and how radio frequencies may conflict with surroundings are just a few of the questions the FAA seeks to answer before allowing drones to hit the skies.

Oregon is already a hotbed of the drone industry. Although the implementation of drones throughout Oregon is expected to center around agricultural use, the nascent industry will also be used in wildfire response, aerial scouting, first aid response, and urban planning.

One organization, Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, recently purchased two UAVs to survey spawning Chinook salmon. They’ll also be surveying the pesky double-crested cormorants. The black seabirds love to eat salmon, so much so that the Army Corps of Engineers is considering killing them to prevent them from wiping out salmon populations.

The film industry has already been granted permission to use UAVs, signifying a loosening of the red tape surrounding commercial drone use. Media outlets are also rallying to get on the FAA’s approved list. About a dozen outlets have joined a lawsuit which challenges the FAA’s right to regulate the press’ use of drones, arguing that such restrictions interfere with the freedom of the press.

VDOS Global Takes off
While several companies in Oregon wait to receive approval from the FAA, VDOS Global has been given the go-ahead.

VDOS Global, a Corvallis-based “vertically integrated inspection service company,” has been granted clearance by the FAA to fly drones commercially in civilian airspace. VDOS is the only company that has been cleared to work with energy-producing companies.

VDOS specializes in using UAVs, small multi-rotor quad copters, for inspection services, data collection, and other research purposes. Up to this point, they were using manned aircraft to complete their work.

VDOS is primarily focused on the oil and gas industry, specifically offshore oil rigs. They will be launching with their first partner, Shell, to inspect oil rigs operated throughout the Gulf of Mexico. VDOS has clients in Texas and the Gulf Coast, and is looking to expand their customer base to Alaska in the near future. The company aims to work with oil and gas clients who need to inspect facilities, a task that can be quite costly (millions per day) and requires the company to shut down operations. Flare stack inspections would top the list.

VDOS received a waiver for offshore use, and hopes to eventually expand to onshore rigs and other industrial facilities. The company is leading the pack in terms of being on the cutting edge for similar businesses involved in the same field, according to Charles Whiteside, CEO of VDOS. Whiteside completed an almost 20-year stint in the Navy and spent most of his time in the skies as an FA-18 pilot. He ensures his company works closely with the FAA to follow rules and regulations, and if one were to visit their website they’d see the word “safety” about a jillion times.

The team at VDOS Global has also been active around the community. They have supported OSU and ODFW’s efforts in counting salmon populations using UAVs. They’re also volunteering to help start up a new group at OSU wanting to get in on the drone action, called the Autonomous Systems Research Group. They will use drones to conduct marine and terrestrial research using existing technologies combined with sensing and imaging systems.

The group will organize OSU’s on-campus efforts and initiate public outreach and collaborative work with private industries and government agencies. “Advanced aerial, terrestrial, and marine systems are all being developed with highly sophisticated technologies for a wide variety of uses,” said Ron Adams, OSU’s interim vice president for research, in a release. “These are all areas of traditional OSU research impact and consistent with our commitments as a land, sea, space, and sun grant institution.”

It’s Not All Clear Skies
Although the anticipated use of drones has many tech companies buzzing, there is definite apprehension. The ACLU is pressuring the FAA to implement rules that would safeguard people’s privacy, especially in terms of police departments using drones for civilian surveillance. Oregon legislators recently passed a bill requiring police to obtain a warrant before using drones to track suspects, but the ACLU worries these measures are not enough, and vows to “ensure privacy rights of Oregonians are not undermined by other interests.”

One Oregon City-based company has taken a different position on drones, and has received swaths of negativity because of it. Domestic Drone Countermeasures (DDC), founded by the team behind Aplus Mobile, is raising money through a Kickstarter program to develop a system that would notify people when a drone is within 50 feet. While DDC has received some positive feedback from citizens concerned about the implications of drones on civil liberties, much of the feedback has been overwhelmingly negative.<

Looking Ahead
With drones being better known for their sloppy delivery of civilian deaths overseas, it will likely take the public some time to accept their civilian and commercial applications. Privacy advocates will also likely dig in their heels against drone use, but it’s looking more and more like drones will be an inevitable fact of our daily lives in the near future. Like all new technologies, privacy and security will be hotly debated, and resolutions agreed upon after years of trial and error. However, if implemented with a little bit of common sense and respect for fellow neighbors, Oregon has huge potential to capitalize on the use of drones and become an industry leader for the rest of the United States to look to. Like smartphones, drones will likely change the way we interact with the Earth, each other, and our communities, and once they hit the skies it will be hard to get them out.

By Kirsten Allen