Tillamook’s Near Space Corporation named one of nation’s elite unmanned aircraft test site operators

One of Near Space Corporation's high-altitude balloons. (Photo courtesy of Near Space Corporation)
One of Near Space Corporation’s high-altitude balloons. (Photo courtesy of Near Space Corporation)

TILLAMOOK, Ore. – Sen. Betsy Johnson and Eric Simpkins want to get this out of the way up front:

The term “drone” is, in their collective opinion, a poor substitute for the term “unmanned aircraft systems,” also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles.”

“Because of the word ‘drone’ and the connotation of how they have been employed in the theater of war, we have lost touch with all of the applications these unmanned aircraft systems are capable of being used for,” said Johnson (D-Scappoose).

“Drone is an ugly word,” said Simpkins, business development manager with Near Space Corporation, the Tillamook-based company that was recently named one of six UAS research and test flight operators by the Federal Aviation Administration. “I think the press has popularized the term drone, and it is derived from the military use – weapon delivery.”

However, through its research and testing, Near Space will be helping to develop scientific, humanitarian (think medicine or food and other emergency supplies following a natural disaster), commercial and emergency management applications for UAS, said Simpkins.

Near Space, which makes and operates high-altitude balloons on behalf of NASA and the United States Department of Defense along with many private clients, is in good company. It, along with five other operators, were chosen on Dec. 30 for the program following a rigorous 10-month selection process, he said. The company, which is located at the Port of Tillamook Bay Industrial Park, was among 25, representing 24 states, to submit proposals.

Near Space-Tim Lachenmeier
Near Space President Tim Lachenmeier

“The importance of the FAA selection is that Near Space Corporation will be heavily involved in conducting the required research, with a variety of academic, commercial, and government partners, to safely adopt the technological advantages of UAS for high-value uses,” said Tim Lachenmeier, Near Space president.

This research will be conducted in remote and sparsely populated areas and will focus on marine and atmospheric research, emergency management and disaster response, search and rescue, forestry, and precision agriculture.

“Our partners include Oregon State University, Economic Development of Central Oregon and more than a dozen companies representing the UAS industry,” said Simpkins.

However, “Near Space Corporation has been conducting flights with unmanned aircrafts for a long time,” said Simpkins. “Balloons are unmanned aircraft of a sort. We do it with FAA permission. It’s on a case-by-case basis.”

“Near Space Corporation is one of the few companies that is doing this work nationally as well as internationally,” said Johnson, for whom Near Space Corporation’s Johnson Near Space Center is named.

On an economic development level, UAS represent a new frontier, she said, referring to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ announcement last year that his company plans eventually to deliver orders by UAS.

“Let’s go over to Eastern Oregon and think of the reconnaissance they can do on water monitoring and checking field conditions. By virtue of Oregon being included, we’re going to help local industries.”

“The cost (of using UAVs versus traditional methods) is a lot cheaper for surveying, for agriculture crop imaging, that kind of thing,” said John Helm, Johnson’s husband and Transwestern Aviation in Scappoose. “It’s pennies on the dollar.”

All this talk of economic development suits Port of Tillamook Bay General Manager Michele Bradley just fine. “The Port of Tillamook Bay’s mission is to have a place for business to grow and succeed,” she said. “The Port’s Airport Business Park, where the Johnson Near Space Center is located, was a build-to-suit for Near Space Corporation and their growing business. The recent decision by the FAA is a huge step forward for bringing businesses and jobs to Tillamook County.”

Michele Bradley
Port of Tillamook Bay General Manager Michele Bradley.

Simpkins added, “Our trade association – the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, has estimated that 100,000 (UAS) jobs will be created by 2025. The national economic impact will total $82 billion by 2025. And that’s just for commercial applications. States that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the UAS industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not,” he added.

Jonathan Evans, co-founder of UAS software developer Rising Tide Innovations, recently told the Portland Business Journal that test range locations such as Near Space’s will spawn more “information age” jobs in the form of nearby tech centers and manufacturing operations.

Still not everyone is happy at the prospect of UAS flying overhead. “You have to contrast all that good news with a group of folks who worry about ‘black helicopters’ and government intrusion,” said Johnson. “I don’t subscribe to the theory that this is sinister and bad – this is just the use of another generation of technological tools that will allow us to find, I think, great dividends. It is no more threatening than robotic surgery. This is no more intrusive than a smartphone that pumps out your GPS location to whoever cares. It has unlimited possibilities if we’re not so parochial.”

Johnson was among only five Oregon senators to vote against House Bill 2710, which passed in the House and Senate during the 2013 legislative session.

The law, which is set to take effect Jan. 2, 2016, will place limits on the use of UAS in a variety of ways, including by requiring public entities using the technology to register with the Oregon Department of Aviation.

Betsy Johnson
Sen. Betsy Johnson

Johnson said she was sad to see the bill pass and suggested it gained traction from widespread fears of “the abuses of the NSA.”

Helm said he believes the state “reacted a little quickly,” and added that the FAA will eventually develop regulations governing the use of UAS in domestic airspace.

According to Lachenmeier, “an overarching component of this award is the FAA’s requirement that each test site operate within a strict set of privacy policies and procedures that are subject to FAA and public review. Throughout it all, we are required to comply with FAA regulations similar to those that apply to piloted aircraft, with extra safeguards included for protecting privacy, people and property.”

The FAA will require each test site operator to verify each year that it is in compliance with its privacy policies and procedures, said Lachenmeier.

Simpkins added that the majority of applications Near Space and other test site operators will research are intended for remote locations, such as the ocean, forests and agricultural fields, “and that’s exactly what the FAA wants.”

Meanwhile, in related news, Near Space Corporation is up for the Large Business of the Year Award at this year’s Tillamook Area Chamber of Commerce Awards & Banquet event.