UAS range manager has eye on the sky

Darryl Abling is the Pendleton UAS range manager at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.

While drones might not have entered Pendleton’s consciousness until a few years ago, they’ve been on Darryl Abling’s radar for much longer.

Abling, the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range manager, came to Eastern Oregon after a 29-year career at Northrop Grumman, a company that has been working with drones since 2000.

Abling had worked on the stealth bomber by that time, an airplane he described as “super secret, black world stuff.” He eventually worked his way up even farther, becoming the flight test lead for the aerospace giant and military contractor.

During that time, Abling oversaw tests of full-sized, unmanned versions of a helicopter and stealth bomber at Naval Air Station Point Mugu on the Southern California coast.

Although he’s a Philadelphia native, Abling decided against a move back to the Northeast and retired when Northrop Grumman moved testing operations to Maryland.

Northrop Grumman still indirectly helped him get the job in Pendleton when an old colleague, who now works at the University of Alaska campus that administers the test ranges in Oregon, recommend he apply for the vacant range manager position in Pendleton.

The Pendleton UAS Range had been without a range manager for more than a year after the departure of former manager John Stevens, who became the chief operating officer of SOAR Oregon, an organization that supports the state’s three test ranges.

SOAR Oregon made up for Stevens’ departure by providing Pendleton with a two-year, $300,000 grant to hire a new manager, which was filled when the city hired Abling in July.

A reminder of Abling’s Northrop Grumman days sits on his desk at his office at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, a model of the unmanned stealth bomber signed by all of his former co-workers.

It’s also a symbol of the experience he now uses every day for his new job, which includes coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration and acting as the safety manager for all test operations.

“We can’t tolerate an accident,” he said.

Abling said testing has come a long way since Peak 3, the Alaska-based company that managed the range in the past, flew a small quadcopter in a farm field for a few minutes.

Abling said he has presided over 100 operations since he started, and the UAS test range has recently started coordinating unmanned testing with standard flight traffic at the airport.

While many of the companies that come to test at the airport make staff sign a non-disclosure agreement, Abling said 2017 is shaping up to bring in return customers like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and new ones like Overwatch Imaging, a sensor company from Hood River.

A bigger fish the test range could land comes courtesy of Airbus, which struck a deal with the SOAR Oregon to begin testing its automated air taxi concept at Tillamook, Warm Springs and Pendleton. Abling said the test range is seeing a steady increase in business because of the easing of federal regulations by the FAA, which gives the range more leeway in running operations for small and medium-sized drones.

“Coming into the commercial world ... it was extremely difficult, just even a couple of years ago, to operate in the national air space,” he said. “What the FAA’s done when they created this range complex is chartered us to do the research as to how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, which is what you have to do to have Amazon delivering (packages), Domino’s delivering pizzas.”

Abling said the next step would be for the FAA to start allowing drones to fly outside the visual line of sight of an operator, an important development needed for an unmanned vehicle doing a search-and-rescue operation or delivering a package.

Abling said he loves Pendleton and has no intention of moving back to California, where you don’t get the same distinct seasons that Eastern Oregon provides its residents.

He said that the goal of his tenure with the Pendleton UAS Range is to make it self-sustaining, and he believes it’s well on its way.

The test range is currently assembling a mobile mission control center, which it could lease out to drone companies for testing.

While the test range can’t charge companies to use the airspace, they can lease services like the control center and mission support to help the test range break even.

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

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