'Drone' researchers prefer term 'unmanned aircraft'

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Imagine a pizza delivered straight to your door via a small plane.

This sci-fi concept is close to reality.

In 2013, Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace by 2015.

In order to make this demand possible, the FAA started accepting applications from test sites across the US.

On December 30, 2013, they announced six areas that made the cut, including the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aircraft Test Site.

This area includes a triangle between Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon.

Rick Spinrad with Oregon State University said the application prepared by the three states appealed to the FAA.

Alaska has been working with unmanned aircraft technology for years, and Oregon provides an extraordinarily diverse terrain.

"We're got the Coast. We've got the Cascades. We've got the high desert," Spinrad said. "We have agriculture. We've got the Gorge. We've got urban areas. So we can demonstrate the ability to fly in a variety of different kinds of environments."

Spinrad said researchers prefer to use the term "unmanned aircraft" instead of "drone."

"That drone is just the aircraft itself. This is all about the whole system. It's everything from the sensors to the aircraft to the ground support to the people," he said.

Those sensors are one of the main focuses of these test sites. They are being used to read infrared light and heat, or even spot a scrap of cloth in the middle of the woods. Spinrad hopes this technology can be harnessed to locate people lost in the woods.

Another valuable application in Oregon: precision agriculture.

"If you think about it, being able to fly these aircrafts over a thousand acre wheat field to determine what areas need pesticide or herbicide or more irrigation or less irrigation, can be done pretty quickly and pretty efficiently," Spinrad said while comparing the drone technology to hand-collected agriculture data.

But is modern technology truly capable of doing that? Spinrad says yes.

"Quite honestly, the technology is already there to do this kind of thing," he said.

What does not exist are the protection of privacy and safety regulations. Oregon State University researchers hope to address these regulations and help design them. Surveillance has become a public concern.

Spinrad stressed that privacy issues associated with any kind of technology are very important and assured KVAL News that the tests planned for the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aircraft Test Site will not be oriented around those kind of surveillance activities.