Drones over the skies of Grays Harbor? A couple of months ago it sounded too far-fetched to be true. There was even a practical joke about drones hatched by a local blogger in April. But the Port of Grays Harbor is working with Gov. Jay Inslee and economic development leaders to designate a large swath of the state of Washington for testing of unmanned aerial drones. One of the sites in Washington under consideration is Bowerman Field in Hoquiam.
At this point, there’s been no lease agreements signed, scopes submitted on specific uses of Bowerman Field approved or signed by either the Port of Grays Harbor Commissioners or Port Executive Director Gary Nelson. The Vidette did a public records request with the Port to seek more information about the proposal and Port attorney Art Blauvelt confirmed that talk of using the Port is still in preliminary stages. Nelson has only sent an email saying the Port is interested in the opportunity.
The Federal Aviation Administration will choose six states to serve as “critical players in the integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems into the national airspace system,” according to a briefing paper by economic development group Innovate Washington.
The records show that the Port was first approached about the testing for drones back in June of last year by the executive director of the Port of Moses Lake. The idea was spearheaded by Alex Pietsch, director of the Governor’s Office of Aerospace, who first started the plan under Gov. Chris Gregoire and still serves as director under Gov. Jay Inslee.
Pietsch is hoping that the designation will help the state become “magnets for economic activity.” And Tim Gibbs, the CEO of Greater Grays Harbor, Inc., has been involved in the talks since the fall, according to the records.
“I’m very excited about this,” Gov. Inslee said in an interview with The Vidette during a recent stop on the Harbor. “I think our state is in a very good sweet spot to become a national test bed center for drone aircraft. There are a lot of questions to be answered about FFA communication systems and the safety of these operations and we are the perfect place to do this for a lot of reasons. …
“We’ve got the industry here because we’re so aerospace oriented,” Inslee said. “We have where some of the greatest drones are made. We have a very diverse geography and meteorology here. We’re about as diverse as anywhere in the world so we can test these things in the marine environment here and in the high desert plains around Moses Lake. We are making a very vigorous effort to land this national test bed center in the state of Washington. We’ve got a good coordinated approach to do that between multiple entities at colleges and economic development folks and aircraft manufacturers so we have a good proposal and it will be competitive.”
APPLICATION DEADLINE MET
Bruce Phillips, vice president at Innovate Washington, told The Vidette that a consortium of interests submitted an application to the FAA by their May 6 deadline. Designation announcements are slated for Sept. 27, 2013.
The application notes a potential economic impact to the state of Washington at $30 million in research dollars alone. The application doesn’t give a specific number of jobs that could result, but it could mean big bucks if manufacturers decide to locate to the state to be closer to test ranges.
“On one level, there will be significant revenue and significant tax revenue coming into the state of Washington and there will be jobs and investments associated with this activity,” Phillips said.
“Having these sort of test ranges will allow the industry to grow,” Phillips added. “The industry is so focused on the military from the get-go, but the future is in its the civilian applications that will allow industry to grow. We’re talking precision agriculture and monitoring snow pack.”
One application for the coast could be using drones to look for tsunami debris identification and tracking. Or, Phillips said, there’s a drone company specifically looking at ways to spot tuna on the coast.
“Tuna spotting is an early civilian application,” he said. “They are developing a drone to scan and look for tuna such as we have off the coast of Washington.”
Partners include the Ports of Grays Harbor and Moses Lake, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington State University, the University of Washington, the Center for Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing in Everett, Innovate Washington, as well as Greater Grays Harbor, Inc. and economic development leaders in Klickitat County.
The main base for the test center would be Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, which was originally operated by the U.S. Air Force as Larson Air Force Base and continues to be used as a test flight center for military, Boeing aircraft and, until just recently, was a back-up site for the space shuttle landing, according to the briefing paper from Innovate Washington.
“Our testing and proving facilities include all elements industry will need to safely conduct sophisticated research and development activities,” said Steve Stein, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory project manager in a press release. “Our proposal offers essentially a turn-key option from complete ground support operations for fueling, maintenance, and emergency response, to the existing control tower with regional radar systems, ample hangar space, conference rooms and advanced communications networks.”
Besides sites in Moses Lake and its nearby county airport, the application to the FAA includes potential testing sites near Okanogan in upper Eastern Washington, where Phillips says they received clearance to have drones go up to 18,000 feet there, which is the lower limit of commercial air space.
“And they can go close to supersonic and we do have drones that do that,” he said.
There’s another site at Yakima at the Yakima Firing Range, which is restricted air space.
“And that’s where you can test uncertified air frames there,” Phillips said. “Nothing else can go there because the military is operating there.”
A site at Dallesport on the Columbia River is also included because, Phillips said, drone manufacturing is already being done there.
And the Pacific Coast is being considered a testing site, but Phillips said that the drones aren’t expected to wander about the county, but head from the airport at Bowerman Basin and go toward an existing military operating area, where submarines and other Navy vessels already do testing.
“The specific purpose of the Grays Harbor range is to provide an over-water area where a manufacturer can operate sea launch drones,” Phillips said.
Phillips says there’s no plan to send drones wandering over Montesano or anywhere else on Grays Harbor where they don’t belong. Everything would be strictly monitored and privacy policies obeyed.
“In most cases, the test ranges are adjacent to military operating areas to provide flexibility as needed by civilian and military users,” the briefing from Innovate Washington states.
The briefing paper adds, “There is a growing domestic interest in the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a program to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the National Airspace System at six ranges, The consortium sees the directive as an opportunity to support the further diversification of and innovation in Washington’s well-proven aerospace industry. Further, the Flight Center will support the growth of Washington’s unmanned aircraft systems sector and further amplify research under way at Washington’s two research universities.”
DRONES NOT THERE TO SPY
Phillips said it was important that all of the sites the state is pitching to the FAA be places of low population to alleviate privacy concerns.
“None of the sites are over populated areas because we recognize that will be a level of concern and the operations will abide by all existing laws and we’re very understanding of the privacy concerns being raised here,” Phillips said.
Port Commissioner Stan Pinnick says he’s supportive of the plan, noting that he thinks it could mean more businesses at Bowerman Field, which consistently loses money for the Port.
Pinnick says the Port Commissioners have not talked about the issue during their Port meetings, but he’s seen some documentation on the effort.
“We’ve not been briefed in detail, but I think it’s a great use for the airport facilities,” Pinnick said. “And I think we would want to follow up on the possibility. We need to take a look at all of our options when it comes to the airport and I think it’s a viable one on the plate right now. The airport is one of our priorities and it’s at the top of our list to enhance the business opportunities at the airport.”
Nelson said in an email that if Bowerman doesn’t work out because of potential traffic concerns, he’s also pointed the consortium to consider small airports at Westport and Ocean Shores.
The Seattle Times reported last month that the FAA had already received 50 proposals from 37 states. The Times quotes an analysis by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, which estimates that Washington stands to gain nearly 10,000 jobs and $7.8 billion as the drone market expands over the next decade — more than any other state except California.