Eastern Oregon city seeks to attract drone industry
By NATALIE WHEELER
EO Media Group
PENDLETON, Ore.— Pendleton is trying to tempt the drone industry to land in town.
The city hosted the Northwest’s conference for unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly called “drones” — on Wednesday and Thursday, hoping to become a leader in the burgeoning industry.
“The industry is going to grow, those are the tea leaves we’re reading,” said David Blair of Bend’s Paradigm Technologies, which researches agricultural drones. “The idea for Pendleton is to get a few businesses going in a sector and get talent to town. Over time as they succeed and grow, spin-off companies would occur. They’re doing everything they should be doing, but it’s still pretty hard to predict how it’s all going to come about.”
According to Pendleton economic development coordinator Steve Chrisman, the area offers both open airspace and a skilled workforce. Currently, 25 National Guard soldiers in the Pendleton base are trained with the RQ-7 Shadow, a drone used primarily for surveillance. Other Pendleton soldiers have moved on to cities with employment in the industry.
Pendleton also hopes to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to be one of the few drone flying ranges in the nation.
Several local research companies in the drone industry showed up for this week’s “Robot Rodeo.” With hundreds of people from the industry, it was the biggest conference yet for the Northwest association.
At the conference, Chrisman announced economic incentives available through Umatilla County and the Horizon Project to drone technology companies who locate to the city. Umatilla County would grant $100,000 to a company that meets economic and employment benchmarks, while the Horizon Project loan would have an interest rate of only 1 to 2 percent.
Although the industry has eyes on Pendleton, the plug could still be pulled on the city’s initiative to go down the drone path.
Pendleton is awaiting a response in the coming months regarding an application to become one of 18 FAA-approved drone ranges in the Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon region. If it is rejected, Pendleton would have difficulty gaining access to airspace for flying drones.
Oregon State University vice president of research Rich Spinrad, who put together Pendleton’s FAA application, said it’s a waiting game for the city. The FAA is supposed to inform Pendleton of its status by December but the government shutdown may push back that deadline.
The conference showed off all the possibilities for the technology, including increased agriculture yields, fire suppression and surveillance.
In northeastern Oregon, drones are becoming a driving force in precision agriculture. They can fly over fields detecting weak spots and pests or pinpoint water needs for crops. Blue Mountain Community College is in the midst of developing a precision agriculture program that incorporates UAV technology. An OSU study in Hermiston is also using drones to monitor potato crops.
But the commercial industry for drones is still in its incubation stage. The drones in agriculture may pick up data points, for example, but those points can’t yet be mapped out for farmers.
“It’s all very experimental,” Blair said. “There’s a brave new world coming about a decade away.”