PENDLETON — A 375-pound Oregon Army National Guard drone carrying a sophisticated camera was catapulted into the cobalt-blue eastern Oregon sky here Tuesday, in what Guard officials called the first-ever flight of an unmanned military aircraft through civilian airspace.
Until now, military drones have been confined to restricted airspace above U.S. military bases. The Guard expects to initially fly the four unmanned planes based here twice a month, and later expand the flights to once a week over the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton and wheat fields to the north, said Pat Caldwell, a Guard spokesman.
The brief flight of the Guard’s RQ7B Shadow around the airport takes the Guard into potentially controversial territory.
The possibility of widespread drone use has prompted debate in the Oregon Legislature this year, pitting concerns over domestic surveillance against the promise of a tantalizing new industry. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, introduced legislation that would criminalize the use of drones to fire missiles or spy on people.
But Guard officials vow that the drones flown from Pendleton will be used for combat training, not peeking poolside or in the windows of homes and businesses.
“Our cameras are here to do military training,” said Sgt. Eric Smidt, spokesman for the 27-member National Guard troop platoon that flies them. “As military personnel, we are not allowed to look in on civilians.”
Tuesday’s flight into airspace designated for general aviation puts the Oregon Army National Guard on the cutting-edge of unmanned aerial system technology, said Lt. Col. Alan R. Gronewold.
“I foresee this expanding greatly over the next few years,” said an enthusiastic Oregon Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Mark Braeme.
The RQ7B Shadow is eleven feet long, with a 14-foot wingspan and a noise signature like “an unmuffled lawn mower engine on steroids,” according to Braeme. The craft is a smaller, unarmed version of the unmanned Predator drones used by the U.S. military to hunt down and kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Guard officals said the plane’s $800,000 pricetag is largely due to the cost of its miniaturized and high-tech camera payload.
The Oregon Army National Guard has been training troops to fly unmanned combat aircraft over the U.S. Navy’s 73-square-mile bombing range near Boardman for about a decade, said Braeme. Until now, they’ve stayed within the bombing range’s restricted airspace. They must vie with jets from the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on Puget Sound use the bombing range to simulate low-level attacks.
Flying drones out of the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport will be less hassle for the Guard, said Braeme.
“This is huge,” he said. “Now we won’t have to rely on the Navy.”
Drone operators guide the craft under the same rules as general aviation pilots. They must be able to see 1.5 miles or 3,000 feet vertically around the craft, said Smidt.
When non-military pilots need to land at or take off from the airport, the radio-controlled drones will be flown to a holding pattern to the north at an elevation of about 3,500 feet, said Braeme.
Eric Simpkins, a Bend-based consultant for the state of Oregon on unmanned aircraft, said the Federal Aviation Administration announced plans to open federal airspace to drones by 2015. He expects 10,000 unmanned craft will be plying the nation’s skies by 2020.
In the meantime, six test sites are being set up around the nation to research how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, said Simpkins. That probably will be done with new technology allowing both unmanned and piloted aircraft “to know where everybody is,” he said.
“We will not be playing bumper cars in the sky,” quipped Simpkins, who was on hand to watch the launch and landing of the RQ7B Shadow.
“We’ll be able to fly safely and not be invading anybody’s privacy,” Simpkins said.
The number of drone flights is expected to increase as local pilots get accustomed to the idea, Braeme said. With four unmanned aircraft based here, the Guard will be able to put two in the air at any one time, he said.
He expects the program to remain in Pendleton indefinitely, he said.
“This is some of the best airspace in the country,” he said.
The Guard’s drone program has gotten a positive reception from Pendleton officials, many of whom believe it could attract manufacturers to the airport’s industrial property.
“The more the better,” Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk told guard members. “We support you. We respect the work you do up here.”