Pendleton seeks to attract drone industry

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) This eastern Oregon city known for agriculture hopes its open airspace will grow another industry drones.

The city about 200 miles east of Portland hosted the Northwest conference for unmanned aerial vehicles this week. The East Oregonian newspaper reported Thursday that hundreds of industry types arrived for the "Robot Rodeo," along with several research firms.

The conference showed off all the possibilities for the technology, including increased agriculture yields, fire suppression and surveillance.

Pendleton economic development coordinator Steve Chrisman said the city offers both open skies and a skilled workforce. Twenty-five National Guard soldiers at the Pendleton base are trained with the RQ-7 Shadow, a drone?used primarily for surveillance.

At the conference, Chrisman announced economic incentives available through Umatilla County and the Horizon Project, a local nonprofit, to drone technology companies that locate in Pendleton. Umatilla County would grant $100,000 to a company that meets economic and employment benchmarks, while the Horizon Project loan would have an interest rate of 2 percent or less.

The incentives, however, could prove meaningless if Pendleton's application to become one of 18 FAA-approved drone ranges in the Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon region is rejected. Without approval, Pendleton would have difficulty gaining access to airspace for flying drones.

The FAA was expected to inform Pendleton of its status by December but the partial government shutdown may delay that deadline.

In northeastern Oregon, drones are becoming a driving force in precision agriculture. They can fly over fields to detect weak spots and pests or pinpoint water needs for crops. Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton is developing a precision agriculture program that incorporates drone technology. An Oregon State University study is also using drones to monitor potato crops in Hermiston, about 30 miles northwest of Pendleton.

But the commercial industry for drones remains in its incubation stage.

"The industry is going to grow those are the tea leaves we're reading," said David Blair of Bend's Paradigm Technologies, which researches agricultural drones. "The idea for Pendleton is to get a few businesses going in a sector and get talent to town. Over time, as they succeed and grow, spinoff companies would occur.

"They're doing everything they should be doing, but it's still pretty hard to predict how it's all going to come about."