Central Oregon economic development officials believe testing of unmanned planes called drones could attract business for a local aviation industry hit hard by the recession, but some Bend pilots do not think it is worth the safety risks posed by taking up a large flying area.
"Since they have no pilots, they have no way to see and avoid other pilots, so it's a safety concern," Gary Miller, president of the local chapter of the Oregon Pilots Association, said, Thursday.
Officials said the aerial systems, known as UAS, have become a key tool in the Air Force. But the Federal Aviation Association has strict rules that limit where they can be tested, primarily in so-called "restricted airspace" in remote areas. . "We have the opportunity to keep this (aviation) industry here, and testing is a big part of that," said Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon. "It's a bottleneck right now, and we feel that it's an opportunity."
EDCO has proposed a plan it believe could bring more jobs to the community: allow the drones to fly and reap the benefits of a growing industry.
But some pilots do not think it is worth the small economic benefit.
"The way it's been described to me is that people in Seattle will throw a drone in a truck, they'll get lunch, gas, they'll use the airspace for a week and they'll go home," Miller said.
But economic development officials said they see great potential.
"The industry has a much brighter future," said Lee. "They're expecting a 15 percent growth in the sector, so we felt it was something we couldn't ignore."
Although much of the area is rural, pilots said there could be danger in the flight path over Highway 20, which they frequently use.
"Closing off major flyways and major facilities is just not a good plan," said Miller.
Economic leaders said they are open to a compromise.
"Let's go ahead and make provisions on that allow a corridor," Lee said. "Or maybe not even use the northern half to allow pilots to go through."
The drones are used by the military in battle settings but they are also a tool for wildlife management, weather monitoring and patrolling fires.
Deschutes County commissioners and the Bend City Council have agreed to provide letters of support for the FAA to change rules governing parts of local airspace. Other local governments are weighing similar requests from EDCO.
Officials said the FAA's decision could take a year or longer, and the proposal is still in its early stages.