Drones on the Reservation

What do drones – also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) − have to do with Indian reservations? Quite a bit. The Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon is now home to the Warm Springs UAS Test Range.

The Warm Springs Indian Reservation spans 1,000 miles of Central Oregon.

In February 2012, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, P.L. 112-95, 126 Stat. 11, into law.  The Act required federal agencies including the FAA Part to “safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”   Specifically, the Act requires that the FAA “establish a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system at 6 test ranges.”
The FAA subsequently solicited proposals from public entities, including state and local governments and eligible universities. 25 entities submitted proposals from 24 states, and the FAA announced the six winning applicants in December 2013.
The result of a winning proposal by a consortium of three states – Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii, – the “Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex”  opened for business in December 2013 on the  Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation.  The Complex also includes other Oregon sites in Tillamook on the Oregon coast, and in Pendleton at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.

The Reservation, home to the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs (CTWS), is a dream location for drone testing. The test range follows the borders of the Reservation, which boasts 333 days of sunshine per year over 1,000 square miles of forest, mountain, high desert, and canyon terrain. The Reservation’s population is concentrated into a few areas, leaving huge areas of unpopulated land.
The Range is manned by a team of experienced drone pilots and has a training classroom facility.  Ben Bisland, Project Manager at Warm Springs Ventures, the Tribe’s economic development arm, says the business is moving along well.  The range has hosted test flights from public entities including Oregon State University under COAs – waivers available only to public agencies.  However, the range expects its first commercial customer to begin flights in the next 30 days.
The range will benefit the Tribe through jobs and training.  The Tribe is currently operated by an experienced team of pilots and UAS operators through a partnership with a firm named VDOS Global.  Bisland reports the Tribe’s goal is to “Train and Replace” – existing employees will train and eventually be replaced by CTWS tribal members.  The Tribe also offers scholarships to the new UAS Training Program offered by a local community college.
UAS systems also benefit the Tribe and the region by providing a new tool to survey wildfire damage, investigate potential fires, and assist in wildfire firefighting.  According to Bisland, dry conditions on the Reservation mean the Tribe can expect wildfire similar in size to the 2013 and 2014 fire seasons, each of which blackened more than 50,000 acres on the Reservation.  In 2014, VDOS and Oregon State University researchers used drones to inspect the 2013 burn areas and conducted a flight above a controlled burn area to compare site conditions before and after the burn.
The location is easily accessible to the Northwest’s thriving UAS industry cluster.  Major UAS firms include:

  • Insitu, based in Washington in the Columbia River Gorge.  Insitu manufactures several lines of large UAVs for civilian and military applications.
  • FLIR Systems, based in Wilsonville, Oregon, manufactures cutting-edge imaging systems commonly used with UAS applications.
  • Near Space Communications, based in Tillamook, Oregon, develops inflatable high-altitude systems.  Near space Systems has its own test range in Tillamook which is also part of the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex.

The Act provides that test ranges may operate until February 13, 2017.