Nation & World

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in competition for unmanned aircraft test center

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland is competing to operate one of the nation's six new centers for developing and testing unmanned aircraft.

The Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake would be used as a flight center to advance the use of nonmilitary unmanned aircraft, under a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Innovate Washington, a state agency, is taking the lead on the proposal, with the cooperation of PNNL and 10 other state, county and private industry partners.

"Starting a new flight center in central Washington will allow the state to build off of the established strengths of its thriving aerospace industry," said Bart Phillips, Innovate Washington vice president for economic development.

Military drones are the best-known use of unmanned aircraft, but the aircraft have the potential for civilian use, either to save money or to allow flights that could be hazardous.

The aircraft have been proposed for avalanche control in the Cascades, wildfire spotting and water drops, searches over the ocean in difficult weather conditions, assessing snowpack and tracking wildlife, among other uses.

Testing already is being done near Hermiston to monitor crops with unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras, and PNNL is interested in the potential for conducting atmospheric monitoring now done on manned flights.

The Grant County airport has a long history of experimental flights, said Steve Stein, PNNL project manager. Boeing and the Air Force have conducted testing there.

Once known as Larson Air Force Base, the airport has one of the largest airfields in the United States and a runway 13,500 feet long.

It has what air traffic controllers call a "complex but underused air space," perfect for testing unmanned aircraft, Stein said.

It's considered complex because it gets diverse traffic, including aircraft from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Boeing test flights, Federal Express aircraft and private craft.

But it also is a safe place to test unmanned aircraft because it is not constantly busy, Stein said.

It offers the advantage of a Federal Aviation Administration control tower, which will allow testing and evaluation of technology, policies and procedures directly with FAA controllers to make sure it conforms to FAA needs, he said.

A turn-key operation is proposed for industry to do sophisticated development at the airport, with hangar space, advanced communications networks and fueling, maintenance and emergency response services, Stein said.

Airspace over areas with few people has been identified across the state that would provide testing for unmanned aircraft over different terrain. They include mountains and gorges, deserts, and open water in the Pacific Ocean near Grays Harbor. The closest flying ranges to the Tri-Cities proposed for use in the program are in the Moses Lake and Yakima areas.

PNNL was recruited as the operator for the project because of its research reputation, its strong safety record and its experience managing "user" facilities, Stein said.

The unmanned aircraft center would be considered a user facility, because industry researchers and federal, state and local governments would pay a fee to use it.

PNNL would pitch relevant research to its federal clients, giving it a potential advantage over other national laboratories because of its access to the center and aircraft designers. It should be able to conduct the research more quickly and likely at less cost, Stein said.

The research dollars might be a relatively modest part of PNNL's annual $1 billion budget. But having the center also could provide economic advantages for the state.

Washington follows only California in the potential for job creation and additional revenue for the new industry, according to a 2013 economic report produced by the Associate for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The report predicts that the growth of unmanned aircraft could create more than 100,000 jobs in the United States between 2015 and 2025, with almost 10,000 of them in Washington.

The FAA is expected to make a decision on siting six flight centers by the end of the year. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 called for establishing six unmanned aircraft system research and testing sites in the United States.