Unmanned aircraft could be zipping around Northwest skies in a few short years, surveying farm and timber lands, monitoring power lines and searching for people lost in the wilderness.
Pioneered by the U.S. military, drones appear on their way to widespread civilian use, and Idaho and Washington are eager to tap into the jobs that follow. Both states have applied to land FAA test sites for developing commercial uses of unmanned aircraft systems.
Bradley Ward, a retired Air Force pilot in Spokane, has been in the driver’s seat of this technology and sees big benefits for the Inland Northwest. Ward piloted Predator drones in the Middle East from a base in Nevada, helped manage unmanned aircraft programs at the Pentagon and commanded a Global Hawk reconnaissance squadron in California.
“The advantages that unmanned aircraft have over manned aircraft tend to be endurance,” he said.
The Global Hawk, for example, can stay airborne 36 hours, with pilots on the ground changing shifts every eight hours to stay alert. That’s likely to appeal to companies like FedEx for long cargo flights, Ward said.
“All of those long-endurance, crew-intensive missions and applications could definitely benefit from that kind of remote technology,” he said.
Ward retired from the Air Force last year and works as a machinist now, but his nine years of drone experience gives him a unique perspective as the Federal Aviation Administration moves toward integrating unmanned aircraft into the airspace by 2015.
He will conduct a four-hour course at North Idaho College next week on the history, status and future applications of drones.
As the technology evolves and costs come down, unmanned aircraft have raised concerns about privacy, government intrusion, conflicts with conventional aircraft and possible elimination of pilot jobs.
“Obviously there are groups that are concerned about job protection,” he said. “But if I could just educate a couple people about, no you don’t need to be paranoid, you don’t need to oppose this. This is good.”
Unmanned aircraft hold huge potential for “precision agriculture,” Ward said. The planes can digitally survey large tracts of land and pinpoint areas that may need more water, fertilizer or herbicides, he said.
“So now he doesn’t need to go out and spray herbicide over the entire field. He can very precisely apply it just to the spot that needs that,” he said.
That is better for the environment and could lower food prices, he said.
In another example, the Bonneville Power Administration pays pilots to cruise transmission lines to spot damage or potential problems. “That technology already exists. It’s a camera looking at the ground,” he said. “The difference would be the unmanned airplane could do it a whole lot cheaper.”
Search and rescue missions in the backcountry could be streamlined with drones equipped with infrared technology, Ward said. A local company with an unmanned system could be on contract to support police and emergency responders as well as commercial customers.
Integrating unmanned craft with commercial and civilian air traffic will be challenging. Aircraft owners and pilots already are pushing back, said Ward, who began his Air Force career as a KC-135 tanker pilot in Wichita, Kan., and transitioned to drones in 1999.
“They don’t want any more regulations. They just want to get in their airplane on Saturday morning, go fly, and come back and land,” he said. “They don’t want one more set of rules of how to avoid the drone.”
Ward’s course also will touch on the growing popularity of hand-launched model aircraft.
“In my opinion the proliferation of the technology that will cause the most trespass of privacy won’t be the government, it won’t be a $4.5 million system that someone has to buy. It will be the $200 system somebody bought at Costco,” he said.
Washington’s bid to establish one of six FAA test sites for unmanned aircraft at the airport in Moses Lake has the backing of Washington State University, the University of Washington, Innovate Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Boeing, which makes drones for the Navy through a subsidiary.
Idaho wants to put a test site near Idaho Falls at the Idaho National Laboratory, which already develops unmanned aircraft under the Department of Energy. The bid is supported by the University of Idaho, North Idaho College, Panhandle-based aerospace companies such as Empire Airlines and Cygnus Inc., and the state Department of Commerce.
Ward, who helped consult on Idaho’s application, sees advantages in both states’ bids and believes either one would boost aerospace employment in the region.