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Aiming skyward

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Articles - April 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014
0414 regional wheat 
 Wheat field in Eastern Oregon
//by Bill Peal | Eagle Eye Photography

BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG

Art Hill is quick to correct a reporter who uses the term “drones”: “Unmanned aerial vehicles,” the vice president for economic development at Pendleton’s Blue Mountain Community College suggests. “Drone,” he explains, has become something of a dirty word, evoking controversial CIA use of the pilotless aircraft. “UAVs have gone light years beyond that into civilian applications,” he says.

Hill should know: Blue Mountain is designing programs to train students in those applications, hot on the heels of a Federal Aviation Administration decision that positions Pendleton in the vanguard of the commercial UAV industry. 

You wouldn’t expect to find this Eastern Oregon town of 16,838 on the tech industry’s cutting edge. Best known for its eponymous woolen mills and tourist-magnet rodeo, Pendleton has long been economically driven by traditional industries such as agriculture — especially wheat — and food processing. But the city’s economic development coordinator and airport manager, Steve Chrisman, says a recent changing of the guard among local elected officials and community leaders has shifted the “collective psyche” in a more forward-looking direction. When the opportunity arose in 2012 to become an FAA-designated range for commercial UAV testing, the city’s reinvigorated leadership seized it. So the story of Pendleton became a tale of two cities: one a farm town with deep roots, the other a tech outpost with high-flying aspirations.

Chrisman says Pendleton’s new test range, which will be headquartered at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport and is required to be operational by July 1, will boost the local economy by attracting to the city businesses exploring commercial drone use. Prior to the test-range designations, such companies could only try out their technologies in remote, military airspace.

That’s where Hill comes in. Blue Mountain’s forthcoming offerings, which could include anything from pilot training to training in UAV-support skills like computer-assisted design, are intended to prepare students for drone-related jobs in such key sectors as emergency response, natural resources, environmental science, and agriculture and forestry. 

Of special interest in this town amid wheat fields are drone applications in “precision agriculture”: ag that utilizes technologies such as GPS and infrared imaging to improve efficiency. Some U.S. farmers with large acreages are already deploying UAVs to detect dry soil, pests and disease remotely, and thus use water, pesticide and energy in a more strategic fashion. Farmers are by and large a conservative lot, though, so most are taking a wait-and-see stance on the technology. 

Tyson Raymond, a fifth-generation, 33-year-old farmer who grows mostly wheat on his family’s vast plot outside Pendleton, is a case in point. While he employs precision-ag technologies on his tractors and pesticide sprayers, he isn’t yet sold on drones’ utility. 

“Until somebody can explain directly how it either (a) helps me grow better crops or (b) saves me money, it won’t be utilized,” Raymond says. “But that’s the same with any new technology. I think most people see potential there.”

Although UAVs have the capability to transform agriculture, Raymond’s not-atypical attitude shows that in Pendleton the two industries remain worlds apart. Drones are an economic-development dream — but wheat is king. The region’s grain cooperative, Pendleton Grain Growers, deals 10 to 13 million bushels of it a year, and the returns reverberate throughout the local economy, from suppliers to shippers to local retailers. 

Of course, farming is always risky business, and of late, Raymond says, dry weather (along with a global wheat glut) has yielded harrowingly narrow margins. As area growers scan the long Eastern Oregon horizon hopefully for rain clouds, city boosters shrewdly eye the same airspace for drone dollars. Pendleton, town and country, is looking to the skies for its future.

 


Umatilla County aloneproduced more than one quarter of Oregon’s $139 million annual wheat crop in 2012. SOURCE: OREGON WHEAT GROWER’S LEAGUE

“Everyone in these rural communities always wants high-tech, because those are the good-paying jobs, but oftentimes small communities don’t have that workforce.” STEVE CHRISMAN, City of Pendleton

“If you look at any of the literature about precision agriculture, it’s all about unmanned aerial vehicles: They’re detecting pests, they’re detecting disease, they’re detecting drought. It’s exciting as heck to see it being applied to an industry like food.” ART HILL, Blue Mountain Community College

 

 

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