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Forrester: Drone range a development opportunity

By Mike Forrester

Published on May 19, 2017 10:14AM

I hesitate to say that something is new in Pendleton’s economy after dashed hopes over the years.

Why has Pendleton not landed payrolls that have gone to Hermiston? Several reasons.

If you need bare land near interstate highways, interstate rail and a major river, Hermiston can be your place. Pendleton has some of those features but this town is more choosy than Hermiston when it comes to development. I believe most Pendletonians favor economic growth as long as it does not change the basic character of the town they cherish.

Seems to me Pendleton has to some extent been the victim of its own success — as if Pendleton Woolen Mills and the Round-Up are proof that this town has it made forever. But the losses of Albertson’s and J.C. Penney and declines in school enrollment remind us that if you are not moving forward, you are dropping behind.

Pendleton airport has found itself in the research and development aspect of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones.

The Tiger Shark is the newest aircraft added to the aviation department of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Tiger Shark collects data related to global climate change. It was developed by a Pennsylvania engineering firm for the Navy for reconnaissance. It was then adapted by the DOE as a climate measuring tool.

PNNL flight official Pete Carroll sounds enthusiastic about being able to use Pendleton’s UAS test range. Chances of repeat business with the Pendleton test range look pretty good.

But even though the Pendleton Range is busy these days, city officials wonder if the future will bring the airport more than rental payments from aviation companies.

After all, the Northwest-based engineering for a Tiger Shark would need to come from a group such as PNNL. And ventures including shipping freight puts distant Pendleton at a disadvantage and Pendleton has a limited number of ready workers.

But the point here is not whether Pendleton can grow to a population of 30,000 or becomes the UAS capital of the West. The question is whether Pendleton and its airport can team up with drone R&D people and help them. If so, Pendleton can be a net beneficiary.

Incorporating drones into farming drove early interest in forming a test range here. Pendleton sits next to the Columbia Basin, one of the most productive crop areas in the United States. World War II brought Pendleton an airport designed to handle planes of the Army Air Corps and commercial airliners out of Portland. And the fact that Pendleton is in a rural area of just 17,000 is good because UAS aircraft need plenty of space.

The FAA says the data from the Pendleton test range helps the FAA in writing flight regulations and ensuring that airport users across the country can operate cooperatively and safely with one another.

The FAA is known for extra attention they give to drafting and revising regulations governing aviation. It can be frustrating to deal with a cautious agency, but Pendleton UAS officials have learned to cope.

Darryl Abling, the Pendleton Range manager, says that in addition to the Tiger Shark, other potential clients have shown an interest in using the Pendleton Test Range, but he gave no names.

Abling, a 29-year veteran of Northrop Grumman in Southern California, showed me two facilities to house drone test operations at the Pendleton airport.

One is a trailer that can move tech equipment from place to place on the test range. The other is a 12,000-square-foot building that used to house bank records.

So what is the potential for outside investment and jobs at the Pendleton test range? Distance from urban areas and shortage of housing and workforce may rule out manufacturing of drones. So what is more likely to develop?

Because of the Pendleton Range’s favorable reputation so far, I would guess that the PNNL would consider Pendleton for work on aircraft beyond the Tiger Shark drones. Likewise for the FAA’s writing of drone flight regulations and capturing data on climate change. Pendleton has apparently been a dependable partner, so why not keep using the facility?

Pendleton needs well paying jobs. Numbers of ag jobs here have declined as farm ownership has consolidated.

If there was a prize for filling a drone test range niche, Pendleton might get the blue ribbon: Diverse array of aircraft from science research to military to medical, distance from urban areas, nearness to diverse cropland and forest lands, variety of weather and climate, nearness to Tri-Cities.

A rule in economic development is to build on your strengths. Pendleton has been fortunate in that. A flourishing sheep industry helped start the Pendleton Woolen Mills just after 1900. And the Round-Up and Happy Canyon were a natural fit for Pendleton.

Operating a test range for drones has been a niche only for a couple of years. “Make the most of what you have” is still good advice.

Pendleton city officials are reportedly planning next fall to start marketing Pendleton and the test range for groups in the industry. I’ll be rooting for that because I and others continue to meet people who are glad they have found this community which offers so many positive features to its residents.

Mike Forrester lives in Pendleton.


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