Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pendleton drone industry began with local hobbyist

Pendleton is home to one of Oregon state’s new UAV test sites, and the drone industry here is gearing up in a big way. But Pendleton’s involvement in military drone technology started 13 years ago, thanks to a local resident. A Pendleton hobbyist who started building remote-controlled planes in 1992 was recruited by the U.S. Navy following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to research and develop UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles — to attack and spy on enemies of the U.S.

Jim Conachen was building remote-controlled planes for a living out of his garage when the September 11 attacks nudged him to approach the armed forces with an offer to build a remote-controlled attack plane. He was contracted to develop three UAVs: a target plane, a surveillance unit and a strike unit. The military in 2002 didn’t have experience with robotic or remote-controlled vehicles, and turned to hobbyists like Conachen for help. Conachen joked that the military didn’t even know there were jet-powered remote-control planes that could travel as fast as 300 miles per hour. “They were playing catch up ... they were so far behind us it wasn’t funny,” Conachen added.

The target plane, made of fiberglass, was designed to travel 150 miles per hour — at least, until shot down by Navy stinger missiles. He was reluctant to discuss the other two planes he was developing for fear a competitor would steal his ideas, but he said both would have stealth capabilities. He added that his surveillance planes would be used for border control. His contract with the Navy was about 300 drones per year, but there was a chance he would be making up to 1,000 strike planes annually. He was planning a move from his garage to a larger space, and hiring more help.

Conachen, a veteran who served in the Army with anti-terror units in the Middle East from 1978 to 1984, also was a licensed pilot and would fly “anything.”

Conachen Aviation is still in business, building custom UAVs for private and corporate customers. The main office is located in Spokane, Wash., with a hangar is located outside Sandpoint, Idaho.

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