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What does central Oregon have in common with the tribal areas of Pakistan? Drug cultivation, religious nuts, and a rugged, mountainous landscape aside,

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Drone Aircraft, Homemade Rockets, and Hang Gliders Compete for Oregon Airspace. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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What does central Oregon have in common with the tribal areas of Pakistan? Drug cultivation, religious nuts, and a rugged, mountainous landscape aside, both are abuzz (or may be soon) with drone aircraft prowling the skies. And just like the Pakistanis, the locals are up in arms about it.

Unlike the Taliban, however, the people of Oregon are only taking up figurative arms against the drones, not AK-47s and RPGs. (The other key difference is that the women wear Birkenstocks rather than burqas.)

On Saturday, The Oregonian detailed a controversy that has erupted in the rural high desert areas southeast of Bend over plans to flight-test unmanned drone aircraft in the region. Economic Development for Central Oregon, a Bend-based nonprofit, is working to open a massive swath of airspace for the testing, which they say will attract aviation investors and stimulate the local economy.

Per FAA regulations, the drones can only be flown in restricted airspace and with special approval. The development agency claims several companies are interested in relocating if the FAA allows central Oregon to open its skies. (Drones are already airborne elsewhere in the state: a Boeing subsidiary called Insitu Inc., tests their 40-pound, 10-foot-wingspan "ScanEagle" drones near the Columbia River town of Bingen in northeastern Oregon.)

The area in question, the Juniper Military Operations Area, is currently used for combat training by the Oregon Air National Guard and as a flyway for commercial aircraft. But that's not all. Oregon Rocketry, a civilian club that enjoys building and launching rockets that fly up to 35,000 feet (!), also uses the area, as do a large contingent of hang gliders, who launch from nearby Pine Mountain.

Here's a choice excerpt from The Oregonian:

Hang glider Rick Christen of Bend said up to 750 hang-glider and parasail enthusiasts sometimes gather there in summer.

"If it was closed, it would be like closing Mount Bachelor or something," he said. "You can't replace this once you've lost it."

Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md., said his 415,000-member organization "recognizes that the day is probably coming when you will have mixed manned and unmanned aircraft operating in the national airspace."

But that time hasn't yet arrived, he said. Most drones are flying blind, and until technological advances allow them to "sense and avoid" other aircraft, "mixing manned and unmanned in civil air space is not a wise move," he said.

An FAA spokesperson says it's unlikely that the central Oregon skies will be flooded with drones anytime soon, since the Juniper area is also used by commercial pilots. The agency is, however, drafting new regulations for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds--the kind used for surveillance and mapping, not tactical strikes against insurgents--which may bode well for Oregon's bid. Because, really, how much damage would a 55-pound piece of flying metal do if it collided with a hang glider?

 
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