By Fred Delkin
The Columbia Gorge has a global reputation for spectacular scenery, windsurfing, fruit orchards and premium vineyards. We recently learned of another, quietly pursued activity on both sides of the Gorge. A pair of Stanford University aeronautical engineering graduates have made this site a hub of aerial drone research and activity with worldwide consequences. Tad McGeer and classmate Andy von Flotow left school with a passion for unmanned flight pioneering, and partnered in 1998 to stage an unmanned drone flight across the Atlantic, following the original Charles Lindbergh route to gain attention for their calling. It did, but peaceful uses for drones were overshadowed by their suitability for use in war zones.
Boeing, a leading defense contractor, adapted McGeer’s ScanEagle design for service in the Iraq war and real time aerial video surveillance was relayed to ground troops. That is now a standard in U.S. military activity in such trouble spots as Afghanistan and Yemen. McGeer’s fledgling Insitu Corporation was purchased by Boeing for some $400 million. Armed drones have leapt from surveillance to attacks on enemy targets, to the dismay of the boys from Stanford, who want their brainchildren to benefit a civilian market. Von Flotow states that “we’re unhappy about current military use, but most engineering nerds such as ourselves are apolitical.”
Insitu has become the largest employer in the Gorge region, while McGeer’s Aerovel works from a lab in a sprawling old house at the end of a gravel drive above Bingen, WA and Von Flotow guides Mt. Hood Technology, which tests designs adjacent to a Hood River, OR pear orchard and has converted a former Chevrolet dealer complex into a drone production facility.
These entrepreneurs continue to aim their efforts to what they envision as an ever-expanding use of drones, which carry an average production cost per vehicle that is far below that of a manned plane. Drones do require a trained ground operator manning a computer. McGeer enumerates a lengthy consumer target list that includes agricultural field monitoring, fisheries, freight delivery such as UPS and Fedex operate, forest fire detection and fighting and his original focus of robotic weather monitoring.
He sees creation of new Federal Aviation Administration regulations for drone operations as a bureaucratic stumbling block. The FAA has no rules for military use of drones, but civilian uses are another sky-cluttering matter. Robotic flight with drones uses little fuel and our drone entrepreneurs are working on a design that enables vertical landings and takeoffs that eliminate any need for the traditional, space-hungry aerodrome. Robotics are already a contributing factor in the operation of the new large commercial jetcraft as produced by Boeing and Airbus, with a computer guiding takeoffs and landings.
The aerial future has moved from the pages of Popular Science into robotic reality, and who thought the river lined, towering gorge walls just east of Portland would be an epicenter for unmanned flight?