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Drone test range in Pendleton shows potential in 2018

December 28, 2018

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — While there may have been times that the future of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range was uncertain, city officials suggested that 2018 provided evidence of the range’s permanency.

Steve Chrisman, Pendleton airport manager and economic development director, admitted that the range’s impact wasn’t always a known quantity, but a year’s worth of growth in activity and full-time jobs is a sign that the range has long-term potential.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates the range, is also high on the UAS industry’s potential.

In a recent forecast, the FAA predicted “phenomenal” growth for the commercial drone sector and anticipated the number of commercial UAS would go from 110,604 at the end of 2017 to 451,800 in 2022.

“As non-model aircraft become operationally more efficient and safe, battery life expands, and regulatory constraints are reduced, new business models will begin to develop, thus enhancing robust supply-side responses,” the forecast states.

City officials believe that Pendleton has put itself in a good position to take advantage of these trends, and the range has already met or is on its way to meeting some of its goals.

The range got money from the state to build a new hangar, and in order to have $1 million in loans forgiven, it will need to generate 165,000 in total labor hours at the range by April 2022.

Having already recorded nearly 20,000 labor hours going into 2018, range officials projected 35,000 hours by the end of the year. Range Manager Darryl Abling now says the range will surpass 60,000 labor hours in 2018 alone.

Opinion was split about Chrisman’s September prediction in a city council meeting that the range would generate $1 million in revenue by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Chrisman wasn’t ready to reaffirm his prediction, but Abling thought the range could do it.

Revenue will be important for the range going forward as a grant covering the two range employees’ salaries will expire next year. Chrisman said he expects the revenue the range generates from services will cover that expense.

Much of the activity at the range has centered around big clients like PAE and A3, the Airbus subsidiary that started testing its air taxi project this year.

Chrisman said these companies and others like them are beginning to convert transient positions into permanent ones based in Pendleton.

Although many of these new employees come from elsewhere, Chrisman highlighted a former test range intern who was able to secure a job with PAE after a stint in the Oregon National Guard.

“We’ll have more interns and push them through the pipeline,” Abling said.

While city officials have long touted the drone companies’ impact on local restaurants and hotels, Chrisman said other businesses are seeing a benefit.

Renovations and maintenance to the company’s facilities means more work for cleaners, electricians, and welders. More operations mean drone testers need to hire plane and helicopter pilots. Abling said 2019 should see tests from some of the range’s original customers, like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and relatively newer clients like Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based defense and transportation contractor that recently rented a hangar at the Pendleton airport.

Hangar space is at a premium at the airport, and the question remains who will pay for them.

The city is still waiting on word about a $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build new hangars, and Chrisman said drone technology is still too new for companies to be willing to privately invest in hangars themselves.

Regardless of some of the open questions, Abling is optimistic about the range’s future.

“In five years, it’s going to look amazing,” he said.

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Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.com