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How the AI boom transformed a regional airport into our most important drone testing facility

  • Adam Bluestein

The unmanned aerial systems testing site in Pendleton, Oregon has led to an economic and technological bonanza in an obscure corner of the PNW.

“The town is very UAS friendly,” says Darryl Abling, the manager of the municipally owned drone-testing range in the eastern Oregon city of Pendleton. That’s a good thing. Thanks to burgeoning interest from some of the biggest names in unmanned aerial systems, this high desert town of about 17,000 — home to the annual Pendleton Round-Up and a summertime whiskey-and-music festival — is abuzz, day and night, with the business of drones.

Last year, commercial customers at the Pendleton UAS Range — including Amazon, Verizon and military drone maker Insitu — ran some 7,000 test flights at the Pendleton UAS Range, which encompasses 14,000 square miles of airspace around the once-sleepy regional airport here. This year, Abling expects test flights to more than double.

It’s a fairly stunning indicator of the recent overall interest and activity in AI-enabled, unmanned autonomous flight. According to a report by investment firm Phystech Ventures, there has been $5 billion invested in drone technology in the past two years, across nearly 130 different companies. Today there are some 322,000 commercial drones registered with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, plus more than 11,000 drones operated by U.S. Department of Defense. Brandessence Market Research projects the global drone industry to grow 12.3% annually, nearing $41 billion by 2027.

To launch new systems, companies first need a place to test them, working out any bugs in hardware, sensors and the AI powering their computer vision systems. In a relatively short time, Pendleton has become, arguably, the most desirable place in North America to do so.

This is the result of a concerted effort by state and local governments, which identified the UAS industry as a primary focus for economic development in the region — a way to take advantage of the wide-open spaces and the all-but-defunct Eastern Oregon Regional Airport. The World War II-era airport had been served by United Airlines, with regular jet service to cities across the country, until late 1981.

Since then, a succession of small regional carriers have provided bare-bones turboprop service to Portland, subsidized by the federal Essential Air Service program. Development here was at a standstill until the state of Oregon formed a coalition with Alaska and Hawaii, called the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex to compete against entities from 24 states for one of six original FAA-approved drone testing sites mandated by Congress.

In 2013, the state won approval for the site in Pendleton, along with two others in Warm Springs and Tillamook. The PPUTRC, which is managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, also has ranges in Alaska, Hawaii, California, Kansas and Mississippi, which let manufacturers and potential users of unmanned aviation systems test equipment in diverse terrain and weather conditions. By offering relatively affordable pricing and by leveraging local, state and federal grants and loans for facility improvements, the range slowly began attracting companies to this distant corner of the state.

It took a few years to really take off. During all of 2016, there were 54 operations flown at the range. The passage of FAA Rule Part 107, in June 2016, which granted hundreds of new exemptions for companies to operate drones commercially, was a game changer. And after the arrival of two major customers — Airbus, working on an air-taxi prototype, and Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation, testing a cold-weather drone for atmospheric science — in 2017, the floodgates opened.

Today, Pendleton is the busiest range in the PPUTRC and “probably the busiest in the United States, as well,” says Abling, an Air Force-trained avionics technician who spent 29 years working on manned and unmanned systems at Northrop Grumman before taking the job at Pendleton in 2016.

The Pendleton UAS Test Range

In the drone world, the facility has become known for its staff and facilities, good weather and varied terrain, facilities and discretion. The range gets 300-plus VFR days a year (i.e., clear daytime flying weather), and its airspace covers large sections of sparsely populated farmland and forest, as well as the 10,000-foot peaks of the Blue Mountains. The range is approved for flights up to 15,000 feet above sea level and gives users 24/7 access to both air-traffic-controlled and “ungoverned” airspaces.

“Our airspace is pretty much the whole northeastern corner of Oregon,” says Abling. That provides the makers of still-evolving computer vision systems — the AI that makes unmanned autonomous flight possible — plenty of space and varied real-world conditions for evaluating system performance and collecting new training data.

Most UAS flights originate and land at the airport, which has a dedicated UAS runway, launch-and-recovery pads and “a very UAS-friendly control tower that does a great job of keeping everything where it needs to be, so we can operate multiple UAS in the airspace concurrently, along with manned air traffic,” Abling says.

All around the airfield, an industrial park focused exclusively on drone-related services is growing. In addition to several certified FAA-certified repair stations, customers have access to a full machine shop, electronics lab, 3D printers, flight simulators and high-speed fiber and internet. “Companies that come in and break a part, or want to change or redesign something, we can machine it or 3D-print it here,” says Abling. Users also have access to three mobile command centers and a fixed mission control room, and can arrange for fixed or rotary-wing chase aircraft if necessary.

Some customers, says Abling, prefer not to operate out of the airport — “especially if they’re doing developmental testing that could be considered higher-risk, they don’t really want a whole bunch of looky-loos around.” Through agreements with surrounding landowners and nearby airports, Abling and his team can arrange for more privacy. How about a private hunting lodge? “We’ve got a 17,000-acre fenced area to the south of us about 35 miles with a hunting lodge and out buildings that can accommodate about 12 people, with a 5,000-foot landing strip,” he says. “That’s available to us most of the year, except during elk hunting season. It’s a great place to go if customers are site-sensitive or just want to be away from the main traffic or the other traffic that’s in the airspace here.”

Nondisclosure agreements prevent Abling and the city from publicly disclosing specifics about the clients operating at the range — those we know about have released details themselves. Airbus successfully tested its all-electric, self-piloted single-seat personal air vehicle, the Vahana, here, making 138 flights without incident, safely demonstrating core elements of autonomous flight, including real-time obstacle detection and avoidance powered by deep learning algorithms that were developed within the company. Airbus donated the flight test vehicle to the range — the only flyable Vahana is sitting disassembled in 16 boxes in a hanger, waiting for a suitable spot to display it.

Airbus A3 video from a flight test of the Vahana tandem tilt-wing electric VTOL technology demonstrator.

Boeing subsidiary Insitu, maker of the widely-used military ScanEagle drone and the Navy and Marine Corps’ larger RQ-21A Blackjack drones, has been operating here. And San Diego-based Cubic Corporation has flown regular tests of a 1,300-pound fixed-wing surveillance drone; the company’s ISR-One model exceeds 24 hours flying time, with onboard sensors providing 360 degrees of persistent surveillance in all conditions. A company called Spright is using the site to test its medical drone-delivery service using Wingcopter’s tilt-rotor autonomous delivery drone, which permits multiple delivery stops per mission.

Thanks to the volume of drone traffic at the range, in March, Verizon Robotics selected the site for testing “state-of-the-art situational awareness technology” — software and communications systems — for drone traffic control.

Amazon also uses the range for testing of its Amazon Prime Air drone, with mixed results, including at least five crashes, one of which set a 25-acre fire. “You don’t want failures,” says Abling, “but they are a part of testing, especially when you’re testing new products. But we have a very robust safety plan and risk-management plan in place, and if you look at the number of operations versus the number of incidents, that ratio is very, very low.”

Abling emphasizes that clients run their own flight programs, “within the parameters that we have established here.” For example, drones are prohibited from flying over people’s homes, and companies must plan contingency routes, so that if the airplane loses the link from its ground station, it can fly a preprogrammed path to a touchdown point.

Abling runs the range with help from a chief engineer and a range operations specialist, and will likely make a couple of hires by year’s end. But the companies operating at the range, he says, have created more than 150 full-time positions, and there are frequent new openings. For an initial investment of less than $500,000, the range has attracted millions of dollars in grants, and boosted the local housing and hospitality industry. “People have actually bought houses and moved here that are working from these companies,” Abling says. “Others are commuting and staying in hotels.” A new 78-room Radisson Hotel at the airport is expected to open this June.

And there’s more room to expand. A new 18,000 square foot hangar built by the city, was completed last December and is now two-thirds rented. “I’ve never seen a hangar as nice as this one,” Abling says. “It’s the Taj Mahal of hangars.”

The city has approved two more 9,600-square-foot hangars for the airport industrial park. And a private developer has built a row of four 3,500 square foot hangars for the UAS community; three are currently leased out. Revenue from the UAS range has put the airport solidly in the black. Boutique Air now offers three daily round-trip flights to Portland, and the airport terminal is getting a complete renovation starting this month.

“That’s all a result of the UAS activities,” says Abling. “The city council has approved every plan we’ve gone to them with — they leaned way ahead in approving new hangars, and private developers have followed. And we’re going to populate them and continue to grow.”