Bend non-profit launches drone promotion efforts

State-funded group plans grants, cites UAV benefits

BEND, Ore. - A new Bend nonprofit, the Oregon Unmanned Systems Business Enterprise, has hired Mark Morrisson as executive director and begun seeking grant proposals, part of efforts to help establish Oregon as a leader in the civilian uses of Unmanned Aerial Systems, often referred to as "drones."

Morrisson, whose academic background involves biology and sensors and whose business background spans technology-intensive industries, begins work this week.   A longtime Oregon resident, Morrisson has held senior management positions in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has worked in biotech and venture capital internationally and has been involved in the venture capital community in Bend.

OR-UAS has the statewide mission of creating jobs and economic growth for UAS-related applications in fields as diverse as agriculture, firefighting, natural resource management, search and rescue and other emergency responses, infrastructure security, real estate, surveying, and photography and film.

OR-UAS has received its first funding and has now released a Request for Proposals (RFP).  It solicits proposals for potential grants with the goal of stimulating economic activity in this sector.

Areas of greatest interest are applications in precision agriculture, fire and emergency response, and natural resources management, as well as proposals that help develop the UAV industry and advance its technology in Oregon. 

The goal is to make as many organizations and companies throughout Oregon aware of the RFP. The deadline for responses is Friday, February 28.  

"In addition to the aviation component of UAS, there is real intellectual property value in the sensor technology and the data analysis that spins off from it," said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at Oregon State University and board president of OR-UAS.

"We are fortunate to have in Mark an individual who comes from the sensor world, who has managed many complicated programs, and who has helped to launch a number of startup companies."

Oregon Funding

OR-UAS's initial funding comes from a two-year, $882,000 state grant from the Oregon Business Development Dept. and the Oregon Innovation Council, which was approved by the 2013 Legislature. OR-UAS seeks to match state funding with private investments, grants, and other programs to get innovative projects off the ground.

Using seed money provided by this grant, OR-UAS seeks to:

  • Expand existing Oregon companies that support UAS technology.
  • Assist Oregon companies in winning new contracts and grants.
  • Recruit UAS firms to test vehicles, sensors, systems, and applications in the state and to establish offices and facilities here.
  • Generate industry-leading applications that promote innovation.

Agriculture, Firefighting Among Critical Applications

Of the many potential uses of UAS, the most immediate growth area is likely to be agriculture, which is expected to be the focus of as much as 85 percent of the spending on this technology in the next few years. Agriculture represents the largest use of UAS in the world, and in these applications the U.S. trails many other nations.

Early studies show that UAVs can add between 8 and 10 percent to the bottom line of farmers by reducing costs and improving yields. Oregon's many specialty crops give the state an opportunity to lead the nation in a variety of agricultural applications.

Firefighting is another important area. UAS can save lives and reduce firefighting costs by millions of dollars through the ability to locate hot spots before they explode into full-fledged fires and to protect fire crews with real-time communications and imaging during actual fires. Their deployment requires the development of the right operational and safety procedures and the engagement of the many agencies that have forest and rangeland responsibilities.

"Many of these uses are on the cusp of commercial viability and represent great growth opportunities for companies in the state," Morrisson said. "The technologies exist and the needs exist. What we require are specific projects that prove the cost-benefit advantages of UAS, that develop the proper processes for the particular use, and that demonstrate the flight safety required by the FAA."

Support for Test Ranges Also Planned

A secondary mission for OR-UAS is the support of the three test ranges in the state that were recently approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Oregon is part of the Pan-Pacific partnership with Alaska and Hawaii, one of only six UAS test sites that were selected in the country. The designation does not come with any federal funding.

Oregon's three test ranges—at Pendleton, Tillamook, and Warm Springs near Madras—cover a variety of geography and climate. The test sites will be used to develop the technology and procedures necessary for the safety levels required for the eventual flight of UAS across American airspace.

"Oregon has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the leading edge of a new industry," Morrisson said. "Growth of civilian applications is dependent on these new ranges, and Oregon is one of the few states to have them. By assisting the ranges in ways that will benefit them all, we will be better able to achieve our overall business development goals."

The formation of OR-UAS and Morrisson's hiring is the culmination of a four-year effort initiated and nurtured by Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO), then broadened into a statewide coalition that included leadership by Oregon State and the Cascade chapter of the industry trade association, the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI), as well as other private and public entities.

The coalition's efforts led to the award of the state grant and the state's winning Test Site partnership with Alaska and Hawaii.

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