U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's (D.-Wash.) visit to Bingen on Friday afternoon was brief but significant.
Sen. Cantwell spent about an hour touring The Insitu Group facility at the Port of Klickitat's Bingen Point complex, asking detailed questions and meeting many of the company's employees.
The visit provided a perfect opportunity for Cantwell to boost Insitu, as well as to push for a bipartisan amendment she has proposed as part of the immigration reform bill now before Congress.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Cantwell calls for the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which Insitu engineers and builds, to enhance security along America's 4,000-mile northern border with Canada. UAVs are already used along the U.S.-Mexico border, and Cantwell -- along with Senators Larry Craig (R.-Idaho) and Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) -- wants the pending immigration bill to include a proposal to use UAVs on the northern border for one year to test their efficiency.
The proposal is supported in the Senate, but at this point there is no guarantee the House of Representatives will include it in the final bill.
"Border security must be a critical component of immigration reform," Cantwell said. "Northwest innovation and technology will help improve border security efficiently and effectively."
According to Cantwell, using UAVs would "expand the reach and effectiveness of border agents in a cost-effective way, and would also open new markets for Washington-based companies like Insitu."
With cameras and other sensors, UAVs have proven effective at "providing real-time imagery for prolonged periods over a wide area" -- including in battlefield situations in Iraq -- and could be especially helpful in providing border surveillance as well.
Steve Nordlund, Insitu's vice president/business development, was impressed with Cantwell's approach.
"The key thing is, her focus is unique," Nordlund said. "Why put up a fence? Why not use emerging technology with UAVs that are low-cost, increase protection, and use technology that is at a price-point lower than building the fence. This is the type of leadership we need -- how to tackle the problem differently. That's what she is proposing, and hopefully the House will include her proposal in their bill as well."
Steve Sliwa, president/CEO of Insitu, pointed out that some U.S. troops serving in Iraq are now referring to Insitu's "ScanEagle" UAV as "guardian angels."
Sliwa related one incident in which ScanEagle imagery alerted U.S. Marines on patrol that they were being followed. The Marines turned around and engaged a group of insurgents who were trying to ambush them.
"That's great," Cantwell responded.
Cantwell later asked if the miniature robotic aircraft could be used to help in battling forest fires.
"This is something I'm very involved with because of the deaths [of firefighters] we've had in the state," Cantwell said. "If you look at the fires we've had, we've been running into problems in communication protocol. A fire can go from what is seen as not a serious situation to a big blow up, but if you had more information on the changing situation, it could make a big difference."
Nordlund said Insitu is currently engaged in discussions with the U.S. Forest Service to see if UAVs could assist in firefighting efforts. He added that a fire-surveillance demonstration, sponsored by the Forest Service, is planned for later this month in California. The demonstration will be a joint venture with Evergreen Aviation of McMinnville, Ore.
With new applications for its aircraft continually being assessed, Sliwa said the future appears strong for Insitu.
"We grew by 300 percent last year, and it looks like we'll do even better this year," Sliwa said.
According to Sliwa, Insitu started out with four employees in 2001. In 2006, the firm is up to 180 employees and is still growing. Sliwa added that the company has a $22 million annual payroll, with the average salary at more than $70,000 a year.
Sliwa noted that Insitu offices are spreading around Bingen and White Salmon.
"Someday we'll build and have a real campus, but right now we're busy serving customers," he said.
Before arriving in Bingen, Cantwell held a press conference in Vancouver, in which she pointed out that more use of UAVs for border protection would have dual benefits: it would help to boost security as well as improve the economy of southwest Washington. At Cantwell's request, an Insitu UAV was displayed during the Vancouver press conference.
"UAVs are capable of providing prolonged surveillance over remote portions of the border, and prove critically important intelligence to Border Patrol agents on the ground," Cantwell explained. "With much of the northern border crossing rural, forested and mountainous regions including the North Cascade Range in Washington, UAVs could provide an invaluable resource as we continue striving to eliminate surveillance gaps between points of entry."
Nordlund said he was not sure how many more UAVs would be needed if Congress agrees to employ them on the Canadian border.
"It's hard to say," Nordlund said. "It's a pretty big territory."
"We'll keep you posted on the amendment and how it's going," Cantwell promised near the end of her tour.
Miland Walling, a board member of the Klickitat County Economic Development Authority, said Cantwell's visit to Insitu showed strong support for the growing and innovative business.
"The Senator thinks a lot of Insitu," said Walling. "She thinks it's a great company, and she is there to help them out any way she can."
Walling added that her visit may also have economic benefits to the local area.
"I'm always pleased when a Senator is able to come and visit Klickitat County," Walling explained. "It helps boost our economy here. I've been working with the Senator's staff for quite some time on this."