Drones creating buzz in region

Idaho in running to become test site for industry

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POST FALLS - Drones are starting to find landing pads in our neck of the woods.

Some believe the research and development of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for private and commercial applications can provide an economic boost for Idaho.

"It is the future," said Steve Edgar, a retired Air Force pilot who is lobbying for Idaho to become one of six states to have drone testing centers.

"The entire state can benefit from this new industry, and it's not going to go away."

Idaho colleges and universities, the Idaho Department of Commerce and the Idaho Aviation Alliance (a collection of aerospace-related businesses) are among the entities collaborating on getting drones off the ground. Idaho partners had a booth at a national UAV conference in Washington, D.C., in August and have plans for other upcoming promotions.

North Idaho College will offer an introductory drone course to test the local interest in drone development. The class will be taught by Brad Ward, a retired Air Force pilot who helped craft unmanned policy at the Pentagon and has experience flying drones.

"We're trying to give people a bigger base knowledge of drones," Ward said.

Idaho State University will offer full online courses on the subject.

Drones are best known for wartime applications such as gathering intelligence, but the smaller versions domestically have raised eyebrows due to privacy issues.

A whole new world exists for future applications, Ward said.

"The technology is getting cheaper and they're easier to fly," Ward said.

Ward believes the biggest concern regarding drones should come with citizens spying on their neighbors' back yards, but states are passing laws to address privacy issues. He doesn't believe there should be fear about government watching over us with drones because the government has bigger fish to fry with the technology.

"The government has its hands full overseas," Ward said.

Public entities are using drones in search and rescue, fish and game and forestry applications to gather data or pinpoint subjects.

But the FAA hasn't granted private or commercial use of them yet. That's why Idaho aerospace interests believe there's a new frontier out there that could lead to jobs and economic development.

The Idaho Department of Commerce and Batelle Energy Alliance, which operates the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, has applied for a 900-square-mile site north of Idaho Falls to be a drone testing center.

The Federal Aviation Administration will announce the six sites by Dec. 31.

"The FAA wants to develop future commercial applications with the same level of safety we have today," Edgar said. "That's why the six test sites are being set up."

Edgar said 57 entities originally applied to be a test site. The list has been pared to 21.

If the Idaho site is chosen, Edgar said it will have a ripple effect in the entire state. A similar scenario has occurred in North Dakota, he added.

"It would help diversify Idaho's economy to help us avoid further ups and downs," he said. "When you bring in a new industry, everybody wins."

Ward said he hopes drone awareness efforts will lead to measurable results for the region because the emerging technology and potential are there.

"People with a passion tend to make things happen," Ward said.

North Idaho College's four-hour course on drones will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at its Workforce Training Center in Post Falls on Nov. 7-8. It will give a history of drones, current events and future applications for the technology. The cost is $39. Information: 769-3333, www.nic.edu/wtc

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