PENDLETON — The Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range thinks it can get more locals to work in the drone industry by sending them back to school.
At a July 7 meeting, the Pendleton City Council unanimously approved a contract with the Volatus Group to run a training program for a UAS autopilot system.
Co-owner Brandon Clark told the council that Volatus, a Pendleton-based UAS consulting group, planned to fill a niche that wasn’t being addressed by traditional academia.
While schools were offering courses in UAS, Clark said students weren’t getting the type of experience they needed to break into the drone industry.
“Around the United States, dozens and dozens of two-year and four-year colleges now claim to offer top flight UAS (drone) programs,” Steve Chrisman, Pendleton economic development director and airport manager, wrote in a report. “Unfortunately, almost all of those are misleading their students into believing they can graduate and land a high-paying job in the rapidly growing UAS industry. However, what most of them are teaching their students is rudimentary and will not open any doors into the UAS industry.”
With many prospective hirings not having the requisite skills for commercial drone industry, Clark said most workers tend to be ex-military or people with existing connections to the industry.
Under the agreement, the city will pay Volatus $250,000 to put on a series of four-day courses on the Piccolo Autopilot System, a program that is used by more than 150 unmanned vehicles, according to a press release.
Clark said the COVID-19 pandemic means some of the first classes will be smaller, but he expects Piccolo Schoolhouse to eventually attract 600 students per year. Over the five-year contract, Volatus will pay Pendleton $100 per student.
While the Pendleton UAS Range has grown to include dozens of jobs, most are filled by transient workers or newcomers who have moved to Pendleton from elsewhere.
To spur more local recruitment, Clark said Volatus is partnering with Blue Mountain Community College to improve its UAS program with the goal of eventually offering it as an associate’s degree-level program.
BMCC recently announced that Digital Harvest, a Camas, Washington, company that tests its products in Pendleton, had donated $260,000 in drone equipment for the college’s existing drone program.
According to Chrisman, the school will not only allow the test range to open doors for local students, but also is a potential tool for retention.
“(T)his is a rare opportunity to allow aspiring rural Oregonians a chance to learn a skill that will allow them to remain in rural Oregon while earning a very competitive wage,” he wrote. “This will also provide a steady stream of skilled workforce to UAS range customers, which will mitigate the risk of companies leaving for more populated areas.”