Drones could be tested at Moses Lake airport

SEATTLE — The airport at Moses Lake could be one of six places in the nation where drones are tested for commercial uses approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A coalition of agencies and organizations in Washington is bidding to create the Pacific Northwest Unmanned Aerial Systems Flight Center at the Grant County International Airport.

“It would be a way for private companies to test drones, which they have a limited ability to do today,” said Steve Stein, director of the Northwest Regional Technology Center for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The lab is based in Richland but Stein works at offices in Seattle and is a leader of the coalition that includes Innovate Washington, the state agency that promotes new technology jobs.

The FAA plans to pick six sites to test unmanned aircraft systems as it develops guidelines for using drones in U.S. air space. Known for their use by CIA and military in surveillance and deadly missile attacks, drones may also be used in search and rescue, weather forecasting, crop management, fighting wildfires and environmental surveys.

The FAA designation comes with no money and the center would seek about $500,000 from supporting agencies in start-up costs, Stein said. The venture should be self-supporting from companies who see a big market in unmanned air vehicles, commonly called UAVs.

“Our focus is on the integration of UAVs in civilian space,” Stein said Friday. “The sense is there is substantial unmet demand in commercial markets.”

He said the airport at Moses Lake is an ideal location for testing because of ground support and its FAA control tower. The former Larson Air Force Base has been used by the military, airlines and the Boeing Co. for flight training and testing because of its long runway.

Drones also would fly to other parts of Washington for various flight range tests: endurance over north central Washington near Republic, over-ocean flying near Grays Harbor on the coast, flying in secure airspace at the Army’s Yakima Firing Center, and operations around Dallesport in the Columbia River Gorge where a number of unmanned air vehicle businesses have grown up close to The Insitu Group.

Boeing-owned Insitu employs about 800 people. Its ScanEagle is used by the Navy. With a 10-foot wingspan, it can remain in the air for 15 hours.

Many people are wary of remote control aircraft and possible threats to privacy.

Seattle police had considered using small drones to provide aerial views in certain circumstances, but the idea was dropped in February after community protests.

Washington lawmakers considered a measure that would have regulated the use of drones by state and local agencies. It was supported by civil liberties groups and privacy advocates but opposed by Boeing, which argued it would stunt drone manufacturing. The bill died in March without a vote.

Competition for the six FAA designations has been tough. About 55 application requests came from 37 states, Stein said. Final applications are due May 6. The FAA is expected to announce sites by the end of the year.

“We think we have a great shot,” Stein said.

Other members of the drone coalition bidding for the Moses Lake testing center are the ports of Moses Lake and Grays Harbor, Washington State University, University of Washington, Washington Army National Guard, the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing at Everett Community College, the governor’s Office of Aerospace, the state Department of Commerce, and economic development agencies in Klickitat and Grays Harbor counties.

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