The drone wranglers: How the most authentic Old West town in the US is delivering the future of flight

The drone wranglers: How the most authentic Old West town in the US is delivering the future of flight

Pendleton, Oregon is mostly known for three things: rodeo, whiskey and wool. It might also be the perfect place to jumpstart a drone revolution.

When Jason Hill drives to work, you'd never know he's headed toward a testbed for cutting-edge aeronautics. His farmland sits just north of Pendleton, Oregon -- about three hours east of Portland -- but it might as well be oceans away from Portland's "Silicon Forest", the cluster of tech companies in the hipster capital of the Pacific Northwest. 

As a fifth-generation Pendleton farmer, Hill spends his days visiting flat, windswept fields of dryland winter wheat. During harvest season, which runs for about 20 days in August, Hill gets to work at around 6 am. He spends the day cutting and transporting his crop and doesn't stop until 8:30 pm, when the late-summer sun finally begins to set. 

"It's enough to keep us busy," Hill says of the farming life.

farmer with a baseball cap driving a semitruck

Jason Hill's family has farmed wheat in the Pendleton area for more than 100 years.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

Surrounded by the vast expanse of yellow wheat, with open blue skies above, there's little to capture your attention out there, aside from the hum of combine harvesters and semi-trucks hauling away the harvest. 

Sometimes, though, a humming noise comes from up above. 

Over Hill's property, military contractors, secretive startups and the world's largest tech firms are testing the latest in drone technology. It might be a relatively quiet, experimental delivery drone, or it could be a large government vehicle as loud as a lawnmower. Alongside its agricultural output, Pendleton has helped cultivate surveillance and reconnaissance drones, self-flying taxis, remote-piloted helicopters, one-time autonomous gliders meant to deliver emergency supplies, and other kinds of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). 

"They like the open space, I'm assuming," Hill says of the teams testing their drones. "They come out and set up -- we've seen some really unique things."

Hill's family settled in the area to pursue wheat farming 136 years ago -- right around the time Pendleton's City Council passed its first-ever public ordinance to stop all the public, drunken fist fights and wild discharging of guns. 

Over the past century and a half, Pendleton dug its spurs into its Wild West identity. Nestled next to the expansive Columbia River and adjacent to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Pendleton is now known for three things: whiskey, rodeo and fine wool craftsmanship. 

The Pendleton Round-Up brings 50,000 visitors into town as the West's premier rodeo. Bronc riders and bull wranglers descend on the town from across the nation. The Happy Canyon Princesses represent their tribes in traditional garb, while cowboys parade through town with oxen-drawn covered wagons.

Meanwhile, the privately held Pendleton Woolen Mills now sells its high-end textiles in the US and across the globe. In 2018, Mexico's Becle, S.A.B. -- the parent company of Jose Cuervo tequilas -- acquired Pendleton Whisky for $205 million.

the back of a bronze statue of a cowgirl in downtown Pendleton

Welcome to downtown Pendleton.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

For a cowboy town with fewer than 20,000 residents, Pendleton already punches above its weight in terms of prestige and name recognition. 

But for the past 10 years, Pendleton has been quietly working on building up a new reputation: as the epicenter of drone innovation. 

Like the trigger-happy, whiskey-loving cowboys that founded the town, innovators in the drone community have found in Pendleton a place where they can take risks and push boundaries. 

Led by the town's economic director Steve Chrisman, Pendleton has invited drone innovators to use its sleepy airport and open fields to chase after a 21st century cash cow. 

By one estimate, the global commercial drone market could see revenues surpassing $500 billion by 2028.  

Right now, however, the market's just a fraction of that. And a look at the city ledgers shows Pendleton is still spending a lot more on the drone industry than it's making directly from it. 

Chrisman and others say the town's long-term bet is poised to pay off, with UAS business on the upswing over the past couple of years. But he understands why there may be skepticism. 

"'If you build it, they will come' just terrifies the heck out of everybody, especially a small little ag town in Eastern Oregon," Chrisman tells ZDNET. "But in reality, everything we've done has been an 'If you build it, they will come,' and they came. And they keep coming." 

Chrisman pauses to think briefly, before adding: "There have been bumps in the road. There's no doubt about it." 

two men in jeans, standing in a parking lot, smiling at the camera

Pendleton economic director Steve Chrisman (r) and Pendleton UAS range manager Darryl Abling (l) are leading efforts to make Pendleton Airport an epicenter of drone development.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

Turning 'nothing' into a marketable commodity 

In 2012, when Congress opened the doors for drone testing to occur outside of military-restricted airspace, Chrisman realized there was an opportunity for Pendleton to repurpose its airport. The World War II-era airport, at that point, was largely a relic -- albeit, one with a storied history. 

The Doolittle Raiders, who launched the first air operation to strike the Japanese archipelago in World War II, trained at Pendleton. The Triple Nickles, the Army's only African-American parachute battalion, launched a super-secret mission from Pendleton to recover and dispose of Japanese balloon bombs dropped in the US. 

After the war, the airport welcomed commercial aviation, but business gradually dwindled. By the 2000s, Pendleton lost its business with Horizon Air, the last airline of substantial size to fly out of the airport. 

Now, the only flight you can catch out of Pendleton is a quick ride to Portland on an eight-seat turboprop plane.

Even so, the airport receives in the neighborhood of $10 million to $15 million in federal funding every 10 years to sustain its infrastructure. Before bringing in drone industry clients to the airport, there was "really no way to justify why this money is being spent," Chrisman says. 

This problem didn't go unnoticed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency started winnowing funding for the airport, from supporting three runways down to two and then to just one. 

Meanwhile, the Oregon Army National Guard was using the airport for test flights of its 250-pound Shadow drone. One of the sergeants tipped off Chrisman to the new opportunities opening up in UAS. 

"It's a great place to fly," Chrisman recounts the sergeant saying. "You've got a big airport, nothing in the air and nothing on the ground. This is the future. You should get on it." 

It turns out that Pendleton's "nothingness" is a huge selling point for the UAS industry. Standing on the tarmac at the airport looking north, there's nothing but wheat as far as the eye can see. That, combined with Pendleton's agreeable weather, creates optimal conditions for a drone operator. 

"We've turned 'nothing' into a marketable commodity," Chrisman says. "You'd think nothing is everywhere. Nothing isn't everywhere." 

Furthermore, Pendleton's "nothing" is going nowhere. Thanks to Oregon's strict land use laws, the farmland in the region is likely to remain farmland for a very, very long time. 

The FAA was in the process of approving commercial drone-testing sites, and in 2013, Oregon managed to win its authorization in partnership with Alaska. Now, the airport hosts drone testing with oversight from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In practice, that means the Pendleton UAS Range reports all of its drone flights to the university, as well as any other reportable incidents like accidents. 

Flying drones and cashing checks

With Pendleton's new, federally sanctioned status to facilitate cutting-edge drone R&D, "we thought it was just gonna be like a money-printing exercise," Chrisman said. "We're just gonna have a grand old time flying drones and cashing checks."

sign welcoming drivers to Pendleton

Welcome to the home of drone testing.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

But it didn't turn out that way. In 2013 and 2014, the range had zero UAS operations. In 2015, there were five. 

Private companies in the drone business were slow to leave military airspace, where they were still welcome. 

That didn't stop Chrisman and the team he assembled to lead drone testing from moving forward with wide-eyed optimism. Over the next three years, the team prepared for a new industry they knew would eventually show up.

Airport engineer Wayne Green designed and built 16 unmanned vehicle test pads at the airport. 

The team turned one of its defunct runways into a drone taxiway and built a UAS industrial park around it. They built new roads, gates and other basic infrastructure, tapping funding from the federal Safewater Drinking Act and from the US Economic Development Administration. 

Ten years into their endeavor, the team is still building. They're constructing hangars -- including an enormous, 18,000 square-foot hangar with three bays hosting major firms and the US Army. They're building workshops and buying supplementary equipment, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills and anything else you might need to quickly replace a broken drone part. 

Others are building in Pendleton, too. The Radisson is building a new, 78-room hotel directly adjacent to the airport.

A large chunk of the recent construction has been funded by special federal grants. The airport received $16.8 million from the Cares Act -- the government's COVID-19 relief fund -- which it used in part to rebuild its terminal and make other upgrades. 

The City of Pendleton, for its part, dedicated just over $6 million of its city budget in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 to its UAS Capital Improvement Fund. It's budgeted another $3.6 million for 2023. That's all on top of the tens of millions allotted for the city's general Airport Fund. 

"It's a pretty bold leap of faith by a pro-growth ag town leaning heavily into the future of aviation, shaping the future of aviation," Chrisman says. 

Drone operators launch from the airport, with the help of the airport's control tower, but the Pendleton UAS Range officially covers 14,000 square miles of wheat fields, rolling hills and Alpine peaks, and infrastructure such as roads, power lines and rail lines. The range has permission to use the national air space up to 15,000 feet high, and it pays local land owners to fly over their properties. 

slide with map of Oregon, showing the territory covered by the Pendleton UAS Range

Territory covered by the Pendleton UAS Range.

Image: Pendleton Airport

Hill was one of the UAS Range's first partners, since his farmland sits right next to the airport. 

"They compensate us for the use of the field for the day -- it's not much, but it's better than nothing," he says. "They park cars, and they fly, and then they pack their stuff up and go home. You wouldn't know anything had gone on there if you hadn't seen them." 

When the drone flights first started, Hill says he would trot out to talk to the folks supervising them. As the UAS Range's clientele evolved, he gave up the efforts at friendly chitchat. 

"Then I would go out, and there were a lot of introverts -- nerds who didn't want anything to do with me," he says with a chuckle.

The disinterest largely works both ways, the Range crew says. 

"We're very proud of the fact that the locals don't seem to care what's going on at the airport," Chrisman says. "They're busy making money off harvesting and don't care about weird drones flying around. And our customers seem to really appreciate that."

The promise of discretion has helped the UAS Range attract customers that are working on technology they're not quite ready to talk about. The stealth nature of the business, however, has made it harder for the Range to market their services to other potential customers. 

Airbus, for instance, was one of the Range's first big-name customers. The company used the Range to test the Vahana, its celebrated all-electric, single-seat, tilt-wing vehicle demonstrator. The Vahana helped advance self-piloted, electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) flight. Airbus conducted 138 test flights at the Range, but for more than two years, the company was quiet about it.  

"If you want to keep quiet, then we keep quiet as well," Chrisman says. "It's kind of like being the mistress of a billionaire."

Now, the Range is as busy as ever -- as of October 31, it had hosted more than 20,000 flights for the year. Range Manager Darryl Abling -- a US Air Force veteran who joined the Pendleton team after 29 years in avionics engineering with Northrop Grumman -- expects they'll surpass 25,000 for all of 2022. 

By Chrisman's estimate, it's the busiest UAS range in the country -- and the cash is finally starting to come in. From 2014 through 2017, airport revenues hovered around just $500,00 a year. In 2022, revenues will come in around $2 million.

a slide of the different drones tested at Pendleton airport

Some of the drones tested at Pendleton airport.

Image: Pendleton Airport

Chrisman's team has made a deliberate effort to attract a diverse clientele. Another firm using the range is Spright Drone Solutions, a UAS operator that carries medical payloads between facilities. Earlier this year, Spright launched an initiative with Interpath Laboratory to carry lab specimens and test results 15 miles from the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center to Interpath's main medical lab in Pendleton. The proof-of-concept initiative should help patients get critical diagnostic test results much more quickly. For this Pendleton-based initiative, Spright is using a Wingcopter 198 drone with beyond line of sight (BVLOS) technology. 

From cow town to drone town? 

While Spright's business is helping the larger Pendleton community, it seems unlikely many other drone applications under development at the Range will be put to use in town -- at least not right away. That's just as well for Chrisman and his team, who want to see the UAS Range's business grow -- potentially alongside domestic manufacturing -- regardless of where the Range's tenants send their final products. 

Abling lays out the team's vision for the Range 10 years in the future. 

"The hope is it's a hub for UAS, where we've got users out here doing flight testing. We've got manufacturing going on. We've got subcontractors providing services and materials to the manufacturing operations," he says. 

The Range, he says, will continue to grow extensively. 

"I expect it will be fully populated up there on the north side with hangars and manufacturing facilities, still conducting extensive UAS operations," he says. "I don't think this is going away. I don't think it's going to get any smaller. I think that UAS is certainly here to stay, and as it finally integrates in the National Airspace System, we'll be at the forefront of it -- providing services and flight test capabilities, as well as feedback to the FAA. As far as rulemaking, we're kind of at the forefront of that. Our operations are driving how the FAA is thinking about UAS and how they're going to shape the future."

If all goes according to plan, the UAS Range could ultimately help Pendleton's airport become financially self-sustaining -- an impressive feat for any airport, particularly one in a rural, isolated location. 

Still, the Range, of course, has its skeptics. Jason Hill's late neighbor, the farmer recalls, once threatened to shoot down a government-operated drone that flew close to his property. That neighbor was "just ornery," as Hill recalls. 

"Naysayers come out of the woodwork whenever there's anything new," he adds. "I bet 50% of the people [in Pendleton] love it, and the other half are very suspicious of it or say it'll never work." 

Hill says he grows frustrated with the detractors, particularly after watching the small businesses in his town hang on by a thread through the pandemic. The drone business, he says, "has the potential to make the town more prosperous. Having that influx of people coming in is always good -- they go shopping, and they keep us moving along." 

Part of Chrisman's agenda as the city's economic director includes efforts to encourage that influx of people to stay. The city has welcomed private investment from a local developer who plans to build "nerd nests" at the airport -- a hybrid space that serves as both workspace and high-end living quarters for tech workers. 

Justin Connerly, flight test manager for Spright, has lived in Pendleton since March 2022. 

"I was nervous about coming to a town like Pendleton that has this rodeo and agriculture heart and bringing this Silicon Valley spirit to it, and the impact that that has on the town identity," he says. "But from my experience around town, everybody is eager to welcome in these jobs and co-exist... I've just started trying to meet people, and when I tell people I'm with one of the drone companies in the airport, it's always met with, 'Oh, that's really cool. I'm excited for that future.'" 

Still, plenty of residents are fearful Pendleton could become the "next Bend", Chrisman acknowledges. The Central Oregon town of Bend sits serenely next to the Deschutes River. Just a 3.5-hour drive from Portland, it's quickly and dramatically changed from a small logging town to a top-tier tourist destination. Bend's population has effectively doubled since 2000, while the town's housing prices have soared, and problems like homelessness have taken hold. 

And as anyone who's listened to local government meetings knows, it takes a lot less than that to rile up longtime residents. At a recent city council meeting, Chrisman says, one resident complained she won't be returning to her favorite restaurant in town because, during her last trip there, she couldn't find a parking space directly out front. 

Pat Beard, manager of the Pendleton Convention Center, agrees that a better Pendleton doesn't necessarily mean a bigger Pendleton. That said, he's not worried about the drone industry dramatically reshaping his town. 

"The culture is not going to change," he says. "If you pulled up the asphalt, you'd see the ruts of the Oregon Trail. We have a shared culture with the tribes. Those things are never going to change."

a sign on the side of the road that says "historic oregon trail"

Cultural ties run deep in Pendleton.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

Beard comes from a long line of cowboys, with a family history woven tightly into the fabric of the American West. His maternal grandfather ran away from home at the age of 15 and began working on ranches across the West and competing in rodeos. His paternal grandfather would round up and drive horses -- as many as 1,000 at a time -- from Yakima County, Washington to Fort Smith, Arkansas. 

When Beard was in his teens, he and his father began producing professional rodeos. Their business provided bucking horses and bulls for the Pendleton Round-Up, "and it was always my favorite," Beard says. "This was the pinnacle for me. I've been involved in the National Finals Rodeo, and if you gave me one day back in the arena, it'd be this. It's still my very favorite."

Like a lot of long-time cowboys, Beard understands the value that comes from using a personal touch to handle animals. He bristles at the suggestion that the drones developed in Pendleton could be used to herd the cattle that graze on the town's rolling hills. 

"I'm this hard-headed, old school guy that believes those things should never interact," he says. 

"There's lots of people that use four-wheelers and side-by-sides to move cattle. I believe that they ought to be strung up by their heels and whipped in the fannie with a porcupine for that. I believe it's wrong. It's just not right. Much like the Round-Up, I am committed to legacy and history and tradition."

Of course, agriculture makes up a significant portion of the drone market. Beard mentions one prominent landowner in Pendleton already using drones to herd cattle. "It's making his life easier, and I applaud him for it," he says diplomatically. 

The bottom line, Beard says, is that "drones aren't going to change Pendleton, but Pendleton will make room for drones." 

The Round-Up Arena stands as an emblem of Pendleton's enduring Old West culture. The colorful stadium boasts the only wooden gates left in professional rodeo, Beard notes. "They're a little heavier, they're hard to get down into, and they swing a little slower," he says. "And the mentality is, the chutes are wooden, and the men are steel."

man in a cowboy hat

Pat Beard, manager of the Pendleton Convention Center, stands inside the Pendleton Round-Up Arena.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

It's the only grass arena in professional rodeo, and unlike other arenas, there's no advertising allowed on the gates. The stadium holds 21,000, and some of its season-ticket holders include families who have attended the Round-Up since its founding in 1910. 

"When you see it, it makes you think of the Coliseum, the gladiator arena, and also Wrigley Field, if you will," Beard says. "There's just nothing like it. This is bedrock Americana, and it's awesome." 

Lest you think that "bedrock Americana" might not appeal to the younger generation, just take a glance at the enthusiasm for the growing sport of team roping, or for events put on by the Professional Bull Riders organization, with televised broadcasts that reach more than 405 million households.

rodeo arena, shown from the outside

The Round-Up Arena stands as an emblem of Pendleton's enduring Old West culture.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

While cowboy culture is alive and well in Pendleton, the team at the UAS Range is opening up new opportunities for young people from the area -- showing them that there's more to stay in town for than just the rodeo. 

Steve Lawn, UAS chief engineer at the Range, is a mentor for the high school robotics team, hosts robotics summer camps and leads school tours through the Range. He also oversees an internship program at the Range that's in its fourth year. 

Meanwhile, the city of Pendleton also provides funding for the Volatus Group, a UAS training program based at the Range. The Volatus Group provides training for anyone looking for professional drone certification -- meaning they can fly in congested national airspace, with more than just a toy drone bought at Walmart. 

small drones displayed on the side of a wall

The city of Pendleton also provides funding for the Volatus Group, a UAS training program based at the Range.

Image: Stephanie Condon / ZDNET

Students who've gone through the technical training program have ranged in age from 16 to 62, according to Volatus Group GM Jeremy Edwards. Volatus provides training for first responders learning to incorporate drones into their search-and-rescue operations, entrepreneurs looking to start a business spraying crops, and other kinds of professionals. 

"When it started off, you couldn't really break into this industry unless you knew somebody," Edwards says. "And that's how this class got started -- how do we get people [into the industry] who don't want to go into the military, can't get in the military, whatever it is." 

The Volatus Group also has a partnership with Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, which was among the first colleges in the nation to receive FAA certification for its UAS program. Volatus Group and the college are writing a one-year certification program, as well as a curriculum for a two-year AA degree. 

"We cannot get kids involved in this fast enough," Chrisman says, citing recruiting as one of the Range's biggest challenges, "to get them believing that there's an opportunity on the back end." 

What could go wrong? 

Recruiting to a remote place like Pendleton is a big challenge, but it's far from the most serious one facing the Range. Every day, the Range deals with the risks involved with sending large, experimental flying machines up into the air. 

One of the Range's busiest customers is Amazon. Since 2018, there have been at least 11 crashes serious enough to report to the FAA, including one incident between August and December of this year. According to reporting from the Northwest News Network and Oregon Public Broadcasting, nearly all of those incidents involved an Amazon delivery drone, and one of those crashes sparked a brushfire that burned about 25 acres

Abling, the Range manager, declined to comment on any specific incident. 

Still, he says, "There's always risk. There's always a chance something is going to happen. You don't want that to happen, but the sheer number of operations that we're doing, statistically it's going to happen." 

And the Range has a comprehensive flight readiness review process. 

"You don't just show up and hit launch," Chrisman says. 

When a drone does crash, the operators have to provide a root cause corrective action analysis, to try to prevent it from happening again. 

Meanwhile, alongside the hangars the airport is building for its new drone customers, the airport is also converting an old World War II barracks into living space for firefighter trainees. If another fire were to break out, the response would be swift. 

While it puts out small brush fires, Pendleton is still waiting for the actual drone market to ignite. The industry isn't going to take off, Abling says, until drones are fully integrated into the national airspace, under the existing aircraft control system. And that's not going to happen until innovators figure out the best "sense and avoid" technology -- the optimal way to sense birds, planes or anything else in the air. 

"Everybody's working on different ways to do that," Abling says. "There's various sensor fusions, there's optical systems, radar systems, laser systems. Ultimately, I think a standard is going to emerge that the FAA will adopt."

Along with "sense and avoid" technology, the UAS industry still has to prove it can fly drones beyond an operator's line of sight. 

"That's sort of the million-dollar question that everybody in this industry is trying to solve," says Connerly, the Spright flight test manager. "Achieving that requires demonstrating technology maturity to regulators."

Major drone commercialization will happen, says Edwards of the Volatus Group, when companies start getting creative about what they attach to their drones, whether it's LiDAR for precision agriculture or specialized cameras for the oil and gas industry. 

When the industry does take off, "it's gonna be a wild world," Chrisman says. "We're not on the shores of Kitty Hawk right now, but we're not too far from it. There's a whole bunch of iteration coming, especially when the commercial markets break open. We pinch ourselves on a daily basis. We feel like we're in a science fiction movie."