10/1/2014

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Pendleton area makes a play for drone development

Pendleton area makes a play for drone development
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
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PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Pendleton officials trying to lure manufacturers of drone aircraft to their industrial park say a slowdown in commercial flights and sparse population make their Eastern Oregon site area prime for testing unmanned aircraft.

"There's not much to hit in the air, there's not much to hit on the ground," economic development consultant Steve Chrisman told the East Oregonian.

Chrisman said he and the leader of the local convention center plan a conference in Pendleton in October for drone manufacturers, and they hope to recruit participants at a similar conference in Seattle this week.

Drones have attracted the attention of economic development officials over much of Oregon, and especially in the open areas east of the Cascade Range.

"For dramatic industrial development, it's probably our best bet at this point," Chrisman said.

The local airport is underused, he said. The only commercial airline, SeaPort Air, has seen passenger numbers fall by more than half since 2001.

The Oregon Army National Guard trains its troops to fly drones at the nearby Boardman Bombing Range. It expects to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of May on its request to fly them within 100 square miles of sparsely populated land north of the airport.

The Guard has 27 soldiers stationed in Pendleton for the training.

"I think if manufacturers would move here, we have a ready pool of guys who are already trained in operating UAVs who could easily transition into that workforce," said Lt. Col. Alan Gronewald.

Chrisman has helped Oregon State University write a separate proposal for Pendleton to be a national test site for drones in a larger area of northeastern Oregon. He said drones could be tested there for predicting crop production and spotting forest fires.

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