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Originally published Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Washington to join competition for drone testing site

Washington is joining the crowded competition to be named one of six federal drone testing facilities across the country.

Seattle Times science reporter

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State officials are hoping Washington’s history as an aerospace hub will give the state a leg up in the competition to land one of six federally designated test facilities for aerial drones.

A consortium of several organizations, including the University of Washington, Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, announced Thursday that it will submit a bid by May 6 to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Success would help the state cash in on what’s expected to become a booming industry as a technology used primarily for the military is adapted to a wide range of commercial applications, said Alex Pietsch, who leads the Governor’s Office of Aerospace.

“There’s going to be tremendous opportunity for job creation,” he said. “We think this is a natural place where these types of technologies should be developed.”

Businesses and researchers in the Northwest are already exploring the use of pilotless aircraft to monitor snowpack, track wildlife populations, detect debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami and watch crops for signs of stress.

The drone industry is also well-established in Washington, with the Boeing subsidiary Insitu, Inc. based in the Columbia River town of Bingen. A network of suppliers has grown up around the company, Pietsch added. “We have a built-in workforce and knowledge that we think will benefit the industry.”

Research and tests conducted at the six sites will help the FAA figure out how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s air traffic system.

The Washington proposal would use the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake as its main facility. With one of the longest runways in the United States, the airport has long been a testing ground for Boeing aircraft and was once considered as a spaceport.

Five other sites, all in lightly populated areas, would allow testing in a variety of terrain from ocean to mountains and desert. Proposed locations include Gray’s Harbor on the Washington Coast, Dallesport on the Columbia River, and an airstrip near the Eastern Washington town of Republic.

The FAA has already received 50 proposals from 37 states. The agency plans to pick the winners by the end of the year.

It’s impossible yet to estimate the potential economic benefits to Washington, said Bart Phillips, vice president of economic development at Innovate Washington, the state agency coordinating the bid. The number of actual employees at the facility would be small — fewer than two dozen, he said. Nor will the FAA provide any funding. The hope is that the facility would act as a magnet to attract businesses and research money, Phillips explained.

An analysis by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, 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.

But the industry is constrained by rules that restrict most drone testing to military reservations, Phillips said. “If you want to fly your drone or test your equipment, there’s no private area to do that.”

The FAA test sites would expand the options for drone developers.

“What we would be setting up is a kind of a test bed — a place where you can go play with your big toys,” Phillips said.

The FAA’s primary goal is to use the centers to develop rules and procedures for unmanned aircraft to ensure they can be operated safely.

That’s another area where proponents say Washington may have an advantage. Researchers at PNNL and the state’s universities are developing new sensors and technologies to guide aircraft and help them avoid crashing into other objects, said Steve Stein, project manager for PNNL.

Many people remain wary of expanding the use of drones for things like police surveillance. The Seattle Police Department recently returned two small drones after a public outcry and the City Council adopted a rule requiring most city departments to get approval before using drones.

A bill in the Washington Legislature that would have regulated the use of drones by government agencies stalled after Boeing argued it could stifle business, but lawmakers say they will continue to study the issue.

If Washington wins its FAA bid, all drone tests would be announced and the intent would not be to spy on anyone, Stein said.

“For safety reasons, none of our test ranges are over populated areas,” he said. “What people would be spying on, if they could spy on anything, would be the mountain goats and sagebrush.”

The other consortium members are the ports of Moses Lake and Grays Harbor, Washington Army National Guard, the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing at Everett Community College, Washington State Department of Commerce and economic agencies in Klickitat and Grays Harbor counties.

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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