The Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range Mission Control and Innovation Center was a literal toy factory on Friday.
Range employees will contend that the drones they test on a regular basis are tools and not toys, but there’s no practical application for the dozens of small, gray robots the city was mass producing for a group of high school students coming in later that afternoon. Using 3-D printers, the range manufactured the robot toys, complete with cowboy hats, the range’s initials and an imprint on the left foot with the phrase “Maker Buck” and the range’s bucking Pegasus logo.
Beyond making promotional material, the mission control and innovation center is the latest addition to the test range, another feature range officials believe will continue to add to Pendleton’s competitive edge among drone manufacturers.
Steve Chrisman, Pendleton’s airport manager and economic development director, said the center could eventually help unmanned flights surpass manned flights in terms of operations.
The command center
Located at the corner of Northwest 56th Street and Airport Road, the former check processing center was acquired from Community Bank and started operations in July. The city used the proceeds from a $1.7 million financial package from the state to outfit the building with the latest technology.
Its decor dominated by pictures of sun-kissed drones in mid-flight, the center acts as the headquarters for the UAS range. Range Manager Darryl Abling said the building is an upgrade over the asbestos-laden offices at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.
Chrisman said the big revenue generator for the center was the command room, a space almost entirely comprised of desks and computer monitors. From the command room, customers like Pacific Northwest National Laboratory can operate their UASs as they run test operations.
The command room is powered from a nearby server room, where the whirring machinery transmits 10 gigabytes of information per second. That kind of speed is necessary — Abling said a 10-minute test can transmit 100 gigabytes of information to the operators below.
If a customer uses the center’s antenna, the command center can handle flights within a 5-mile radius, but the radius is practically limitless if customers use their high speed internet connection, command center manager Steve Lawn said.
The “innovation” part of the center is an incubator for new tech businesses, a space with low rent and access to the center’s various equipment.
The incubator’s only current tenant is Digital Harvest, the Virginia company Lawn used to work for before he was hired by the test range.
Digital Harvest is using the incubator to develop its Remote Operated Vineyard Robot, a remote-controlled vehicle that resembles a golf cart with a robot arm that’s being designed to prune clusters of wine grapes.
The vehicle’s development is being aided by two Pendleton High School interns who are learning the ropes in exchange for experience. Lawn said interns from the high school and Blue Mountain Community College figure prominently in the incubator’s future.
“Hopefully, (businesses will) move into the airport industrial park and take interns with them,” he said.
Customers can use the 3-D printers as a part of the testing process. For instance, if they want to modify a propeller on their drone, they can quickly produce a propeller with the printer and put it into the field.
In the meantime, the center has used the 3-D printers for smaller projects like a dropping mechanism for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue drone and a custom-made splint for a woman recovering from arthritis.
If a customer wants to see how a modification looks without actually making it, they can use the virtual reality room to get a full three-dimensional model of the vehicle that can be inspected up close.
As Lawn continued to demonstrate the material, he switched to rendering of three maps that show the air spaces of Pendleton, Portland and Seattle. Lawn said he used the maps to show a class of farmers how air space works.
During a visit to Pendleton Thursday, the Oregon State Aviation Board talked with Chrisman about using virtual reality to simulate the effect a wind turbine would have on a pilot descending into an airport.
All of these investments into the UAS range need to pay off or the city could face some consequences.
On top of the $535,000 the city has already invested into the UAS range, the biggest investor has been the state and its $1.7 million financial package, which was used to build the command center and a hangar currently occupied by Airbus.
Almost 40 percent of the package is already a loan, and if the range isn’t able to generate 130 jobs by 2020, another 30 percent of the package will revert from a grant to a loan.
Additionally, the city’s auditor is also pushing the city council to adopt a payment plan for the $2.5 million in internal debt the airport has accrued over the past two decades.
Although Abling and Lawn are the test range’s only full-time staff members, Abling said he’s documenting all the hours customers are putting into UAS testing, which can be used to count toward full-time jobs.
Additionally, the growth at the test range has created more supply than demand as customers ask for more space than there is available.
“You have to have hotel rooms if you want someone to stay in town,” Chrisman said.
He added that the airport is encouraging customers to privately develop storage space to help alleviate demand.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.