On a warm afternoon last summer in the hills west of Corvallis, three Oregon State University students went hiking in the McDonald-Dunn Forest when they became “lost.” A few scattered belongings — a backpack, shoes, a shirt — marked their trail in an emergency response exercise. Rather than send out a full-scale operation on foot in the steep terrain, a rescue team launched an unmanned aerial vehicle, the suitcase-sized Vapor made by Pulse Aerospace of Lakewood, Colorado. With all the whoosh and whir of an electric lawnmower, it hovered over the hills, took thermal-infrared and visible-light photos and sent back a video stream to a laptop in an SUV parked in a clearing.
The results showed that aerial devices can effectively assist in an emergency. While concerns over privacy have driven much of the recent public debate in Oregon and elsewhere, such machines are proving their worth in fighting forest fires, managing farm fields and monitoring the environment. Most people call them drones. Insiders call them unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In any case, they are likely to transform our use of the skies in the near future.
Oregon has been recognized for more than a decade as a hotbed of UAS development, says Belinda Batten, Oregon State engineering professor and a former program officer for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. That reputation began with Insitu, a company in the Columbia River Gorge. “Insitu is one of the global leaders in these autonomous vehicles,” says Batten. “Because of them being where they are, there’s an entire supply chain in the Hood River area: component pieces, the avionics, cameras, autopilots. The motors are being made at Northwest UAV in McMinnville.” Additional UAS companies are located in Central Oregon, including Kawak Aviation Technologies and PARADIGM.