Drone range

Engineer Steve Lawn explains how he can design and build hardware onsite at the Pendleton UAS Range Mission Control and Innovation Center on Oct. 19, 2017 in Pendleton.

It’s interesting to check on the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Range situation in Pendleton from time to time.

- Ken Bisconer, director of West Coast flight operations for a Virginia-based aerospace firm, told me recently he needs to line up housing in Pendleton for 12 families within 30 days. Bisconer’s firm, PAE ISR, has contracts with the aviation arm of the U.S. Navy to equip aircraft with advanced communications systems. PAE has leased a hangar at the Pendleton airport which houses work stations which were busy while we met in his office. Bisconer said he has hired 22 workers this fall, all of whom have served in the military and have security clearances. That is because defense contracts are so central to PAE’s work. NASA recently announced it wants the PAE firm to take a lead role in developing a plan for how to integrate drones into general aviation traffic in the national airspace. In aerospace vehicle testing, Pendleton is a hot place to be. Lots of buzz about Pendleton’s friendliness and its place in the beautiful Northwest. Veterans of the industry say most U.S. test ranges are located in “pits” and lack the retail or entertainment or outdoor recreation of Pendleton.

- Another aerospace firm, CUBIC ISR (ISR stands for intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) based in San Diego, is sending some 10 workers a month to Pendleton for short stays while waiting for a sizable hangar in Pendleton to become available. Other firms in the industry are doing business with Pendleton’s UAS facilities — Airbus, Pacific Northwest National Labs, and companies developing drones for more efficient application of crop nutrients and pesticides on farmland. An affiliate of Airbus has been running tests involving 16 or so personnel in Pendleton to develop an “air taxi” carrying passengers through the air in urban areas. Pacific NW Labs, based in the Tri-Cities, introduced at a Pendleton open house a monoplane called Tiger Shark for climate change research in Arctic regions. Darryl Abling, manager of the Pendleton UAS Test Range, said the Arctic Shark will undergo more intensive testing in the months ahead.

- It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint the number of jobs related to Pendleton drone testing. Two full-time city of Pendleton jobs are related to running the test range — Abling, formerly with Northrop Grumman in Sourthern California, and Steve Lawn Jr., mission control engineer. Steve Chrisman, Pendleton’s economic development director who has led local efforts to bring about the test range, estimates somewhat more than 30 drone related jobs have been created in the first 10 months of this year. A sizable number of them are termed transient. For example, a technician based in the Tri-Cities with Northwest Labs but doing work at the Pendleton Airport. Number of test range man-hours expended so far this year has exceeded 50,000, which results in an average wage of $50 per hour. Ken Bisconer, who heads up PAE’s effort in Pendleton, has his antennae up continually for experienced job applicants: mechanical backgrounds, military service, work in assembling aircraft. Darryl Ablng speaks of a young man who graduated last year from high school in Halfway, Oregon and did intern work for the Pendleton Test Range before going into the aviation branch of the Oregon National Guard. After several months training in the National Guard, he was reassigned to Pendleton. Latest chapter: He has been hired by PAE as a UAS pilot. Bisconer has been advertising for applicants with electrical experience including an electrical engineer. But he said his company had recently changed electrical engineer to another job category to make the job easier to fill.

So the jobs landscape for test ranges is undetermined. The busiest place some days at the Pendleton Airport is at PAE upgrading communication gear on aircraft under government contract. Time will tell how consistent the work will be. Same for the influence of the drone industry in the Columbia Gorge. Some companies in Hood River are manufacturing drone equipment and subcontracting work to businesses in smaller towns on both sides of the Columbia. If Pendleton’s airport is a hot place for testing drones and related equipment, seems to me there might be mutual benefit between here and the Gorge as time goes on. Another variable on the drone scene is the ups and downs of federal spending. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy gathers atmospheric data from a small drone developed by the Pacific NW Laboratories in the Tri-Cities and unveiled and tested in Pendleton. Another public-private tie here is, as noted earlier, PAE’s upgrading equipment on contracts with the aviation arm of the Navy.

In a call with the Oregon Employment Division’s Dallas Fridley, who tracks employment stats in the Çolumbia Basin and Columbia Gorge, I took some notes:

- Aerospace firms such as Boeing and Insitu are making and testing drones in Hood River County and Klickitat County, Washington. Because of the design work, engineering and manufacturing involved, $75,000 a year is common pay in those counties for drone related work.

-Pay for electricians in Umatilla and Morrow counties is $64,746 a year.

-Truck and diesel engine specialists in those counties are making $48,172.

-In Oregon last year, there were 3,220 jobs under aerospace parts, and average wage was $84,909.

-In the Columbia Basin, there were 4,152 jobs under wood products manufacturing with average wages of $40,152.

-Pay in Umatilla Çountyin natural resources (mainly agriculture) averages $31,166.

Even though it’s hard to forecast what drone jobs will be available in 2020 or what they will pay, a couple of things seem evident. One, pay for drone related jobs is higher than pay for Umatilla Çounty’s food industry jobs and travel trailer manufacturing. Also, chances of growth in the UAS industry seem just as good for now as chances that the industry will fold up.

Pendleton’s airport has several features attractive in the UAS field: Facilities built for a military air base, low precipitation and abundant farmland contribute to aviation safety, a big enough community to provide key services and amenities but small enough to avoid traffic jams and major crime. But Pendleton needs more housing to accommodate both today’s residents and those wanting to move to Pendleton for jobs and for raising families. It’s a mixed picture. Although a project of 200 apartments and another of 26 duplexes have been completed, Steve Chrisman says the town would welcome a subdivision of houses priced from $175,000 to $275,000. He also said some builders looking into the Pendleton situation have been deterred by high development costs, Chrisman said he has received contacts from owners about potential rentals but would rather have those calls go to people in that business.

Pendleton has a welcoming personality known far and wide. I, for one, think Pendleton needs an economic jolt and wish the best for the drone testing community.

Mike Forrester, of Pendleton, is a former editor of the East Oregonian.

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