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UAS officials talk about the future of drones

Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on April 13, 2018 8:04PM

A^3 tested their air taxi vehicle for the first time at the Pendleton UAS Range on January 31, 2018.

Photo courtesy of A^3

A^3 tested their air taxi vehicle for the first time at the Pendleton UAS Range on January 31, 2018.

While the thought of Pendleton becoming a hub for drone testing might have been difficult to imagine five years ago, experts in the unmanned aerial systems field say the next 25 years will see the industry continue to expand.

UAS officials from across the country said the next quarter century will see drones integrated into everyday life in multiple ways.

Marke Gibson has extensive experience with UAS, having served as a former senior advisor on UAS integration to the deputy secretary of the FAA.

Now the CEO of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a nonprofit comprised of 200 private and public entities and academic institutions who oversee New York’s UAS systems, Gibson said the development and integration of unmanned systems will accelerate in the next decade or so.

In the near future, Gibson sees drones not only in the air but also in land and sea-based vehicles.

“Almost everything will be run by (artificial intelligence) ... we’re pulling humans out,” he said.

Brett Kanda, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems’ business development director, foresees the UAS tackling all the tasks that are considered dangerous for human beings, such as infrastructure repair.

Nevada’s UAS program has included product delivery tests, but it was Nicholas Flom, the executive director of North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site, who homed in on product delivery as a task that will be taken over by drones within the next couple of decades.

Amazon has unveiled plans to eventually deliver packages via UAS. And in the future, Flom predicted that many drones will be owned and operated by corporations and companies rather than individuals.

But perhaps the most important future application for drones in Pendleton is the air taxi concept.

An affiliate of Airbus is developing Project Vahana, a drone capable of transporting passengers through the air in an urban environment without the assistance of a pilot.

The team behind Vahana starting testing the UAS in February, and local officials hope a successful project will lead to Airbus’ permanent presence in Pendleton and further economic development.

Airbus isn’t the only company interested in developing a passenger drone: Cora, an air taxi project backed by Google founder Larry Page, debuted in New Zealand in March. According to Fast Company, more than 20 companies are also in the air taxi race, including other aviation giants like Bell Helicopter.

Of the four UAS officials interviewed for the story, only Flom thought unmanned passenger flights won’t happen within the next 25 years, saying automated driving must to be mastered before people could look toward aircraft.

As the Pendleton UAS Range manager, Darryl Abling has frequent contact with the Project Vahana team members as they spend the year testing their vehicle.

He is also confident that passenger drones will be a part of daily life in the next 25 years, although he doesn’t expect any large scale passenger UAS similar to the Boeing 777 to be ready yet.


Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.


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