Drones deliver jobs, stimulus

Staff photo by Kathy Aney Five members of a unmanned aerial test team have a lively discussion over lunch Monday at Elvis's Bar & Grill during a break from their work at the Pendleton UAS test range.

Four years in, the tech jobs that were expected to follow the establishment of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range are showing up.

Along with the dozens of personnel who are using the range to test their machines and the two positions funded by state grants, several companies are looking to hire workers.

A^3, the Silicon Valley subsidiary of French aviation giant Airbus, is looking to hire an integration and test technician for its Project Vahana air taxi project in Pendleton. Modern Technology Solutions Inc., an engineering company that counts Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Boeing among its clients, has two openings in Pendleton: a maintenance manager and crew chief for its experimental aircraft division.

Although it hasn’t been advertised yet, Pendleton UAS Range manager Darryl Abling said military contractor PAE is also looking for mechanics, pilots and other positions for their own project.

While it may only equal a handful of jobs now, the city is starting to see signs that the drone industry is injecting some life into the Pendleton economy.

Here to fly

Tracy Bosen is more than happy with the range.

Bosen owns the Pendleton House Historic Inn, a North Main Street bed and breakfast, which has had all six of its rooms rented out since the fall — thanks to a UAS company on an extended stay.

With the increased demand for Pendleton House’s services, Bosen said he has hired three new employees to cook, clean and maintain the 101-year-old building, bolstering what had been a two person staff.

He declined to say which company was staying there, but estimated that their patronage meant he was doing three times the business he would normally do during the cold weather months.

“It’s been extraordinary,” he said.

Other local business owners are noticing the UAS range as a new source of customers. Over the fall and winter, Raphael Hoffman catered a few events for the drone industry employees, who also made visits to her restaurant, Sundown Grill & Bar-B-Q. The airport’s only restaurant — Elvis’ Bar & Grill — is also reporting above average traffic.

Elvis’ cook Dean Croswell said one UAS team eats at the restaurant every day they work at the range.

Whenever Airbus tests its Project Vahana vehicle, people gather at the windows of the restaurant to take a gander at the air taxi. When the work day is done, people often stop and have a meal.

“I would describe it as a symbiotic relationship,” Croswell said.

Local business owner anecdotes lend some credence to the argument made by city officials in recent months: the test range is boosting the local economy by putting heads in beds and customers in restaurants and stores.

Bosen said his lodgers go to the downtown area most nights and spend money. In the days before their return trips home, they buy chocolates and other gifts to take back to their loved ones.

Trent Aguon works with a team of seven for PAE, an Arlington, Virginia, military contractor that is using the range to test Resolute Eagle, an unmanned vehicle capable of assisting troops in roadside bomb detection and broadcasting mobile internet.

Aguon, the project’s flight test manager, said Pendleton is a great place to test because of the variety of eating and shopping opportunities for a town its size.

“You can’t find what they have here anywhere else,” he said.

Abling, the range manager, said it’s pretty standard for aviation companies to give their employees generous per diems when sending them out to various locales for testing. A veteran of Northrop Grumman’s UAS program, Abling tested aircraft in towns like Yuma, Arizona and remembers spending much of his allowance locally.

Abling said the amount of people working at the range varies depending on their testing needs, but he estimated 20-50 UAS industry employees are at the range at any given time.

Bosen, the city’s former economic development director who bought the Pendleton House, said the UAS industry needs to be “pampered” and “welcomed with open arms” by the community so companies consider permanently relocating to Pendleton.

Bosen said some lodgers have already mentioned wanting to buy a house in Pendleton and settle here permanently, but their stay is at the discretion of their employer.

Back in black

Steve Chrisman, Pendleton economic development director and airport manager, attributed the range’s recent growth spurt to the work of its only employees — Abling and range officer Steve Lawn.

With their help, the city was able to land testing contracts with large companies like Airbus, Yamaha and PAE.

These contracts have helped the UAS range operate in the black, yet much of the heavy lifting is still being done by a state grant.

According to data provided by Chrisman, the range made $303,257 from July 2017 through January versus $238,738 in expenses. That equates to a net income of $64,519, though the budget was boosted by a $150,000 annual state grant that is set to expire later this year.

Although the city is looking for more state money, Chrisman said the range needs to grow its customer base so it can afford support staff once grant funding dries out.

In the meantime, the city is waiting for word from the state about whether it can reapply for the $150,000 per year grant while looking at another grant opportunity.

The city has also applied for a one-third share of a $1 million grant from the state to fund personnel costs, which it would share with the test sites in Tillamook and Warm Springs.

Chrisman said in the worst case scenario, the UAS range would continue to operate as it is, generating additional revenue for the airport and bringing in workers on business trips.

The range needs to continue bringing in UAS industry employees or it could face a large loan bill from the state.

In 2015, the state gave the city a $1.7 million loan package to build a UAS hangar, where Airbus now keeps its Project Vahana air taxi drone. $1 million of that package could be forgiven if the range is able to generate 100 jobs within five years of completing the hangar, which happened in April 2017.

The city is measuring that jobs requirement through the number of labor hours drone companies are putting into testing operations. The range had less than 500 hours in 2016, 11,476 hours in 2017 and 5,500 hours through January. Range officials are projecting 35,000 in labor hours over the course of 2018.

According to Abling, the state equates 1,650 labor hours to one job, meaning the range will have to generate 165,000 hours to have the $1 million forgiven.

Additionally, the range is eventually expected to help pay back the airport’s $2.5 million in debt, a burden the city’s auditor continues to flag.

The hope remains that continued testing at the range will eventually lead to a manufacturing facility where drones can be tested as soon as they come off the line, but the current crop of UAS jobs could be filled locally.

Abling said the companies are inquiring with the Oregon National Guard’s Pendleton base, which has a UAS unit, but Abling said some of the open entry-level positions don’t need a drone expert to fill them.

He encouraged people with experience in electrical work, mechanics or manned aviation to contact the range, which would then put them in contact with one of the companies.

Abling said even fresh graduates from Pendleton High School or Blue Mountain Community College could be qualified if they have the right experience, like having a technical degree or participating in the range’s internship program.

Nothing is guaranteed in the aviation industry, Abling said, and these jobs could eventually emigrate out of town. But they are full-time jobs that could be filled by Pendletonians, wherever they land.


Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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