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Drone Maker Outgrowing Columbia Gorge, But HQ And Production Will Stay Put

The cluster of unmanned aircraft systems companies in the Columbia River Gorge led one online journal to dub the rural region east of Portland, "Dronetown, USA."

Dronetown's largest company is a Boeing Defense subsidiary named Insitu. In many ways, Insitu is outgrowing the Gorge. But CEO Ryan Hartman says the company is not leaving.

Insitu makes fixed-wing surveillance and reconnaissance drones used mostly by military customers. Hartman said international sales and a promising new commercial division are driving revenue growth.

"We have been enjoying a pretty healthy growth stint over the last two years where we have been growing more than 20 percent year over year,” Hartman said Wednesday. “We expect a very similar growth trajectory for ourselves over the coming years."

Bingen, Washington-based Insitu already was the largest private employer in the Columbia River Gorge before it hired another 345 workers to date this year. It currently has 129 job openings on top of that. ?

The company is spreading out upriver and downriver due to limited industrial land availability, high housing costs and recruiting challenges in the national scenic area.

Insitu Director of Infrastructure Management Jenny Taylor said the company is now looking for office space in Portland. It's also in the process of doubling its Vancouver, Washington, footprint and has plans to expand a facility upriver in The Dalles.  ?

Taylor said she hears fears in Bingen, White Salmon and Hood River that Insitu might outgrow and leave the place where it was born.

But she and the CEO insist Insitu "will always have a presence in the Gorge."

"This is our headquarters. This is the epicenter of our business and our suppliers,” Taylor said. “The Portland office is an opportunity for us to expand upon that because not everyone can relocate out to the Gorge.”

Taylor said the company now has offices at 19 locations worldwide with more than 1,300 employees in total.?

Production of the drone aircraft is slated to stay in the Gorge. A new riverfront production facility that opened on port property in Bingen in 2015 has spare capacity. ?

“We’re fine for a while,” said Director of Production Operations Ahmad Ziada, standing on a balcony overlooking the squeaky clean assembly lines. ?

“There is nothing automated,” Ziada said. “Everything is hand-assembled.” ?

Ziada said workers are building Insitu’s small—roughly 40-45 pound—ScanEagle surveillance drone at a rate of 20 to 25 per month. In October, the company plans to double production of the larger RQ-21A Blackjack drone from five to ten per month.

None of Insitu’s military drones carry weapons.

Earlier this year, Insitu started operating a wi-fi enabled commuter bus to bring workers to Bingen and Hood River from the Portland metro area. The bus resembles the shuttle services contracted by much larger tech companies such as Microsoft, Boeing and Facebook to ferry employees around greater Seattle or Silicon Valley.  ?

The launch of the commuter bus coincided with another contract for a local circulator shuttle to relieve traffic between Insitu's Bingen, White Salmon and Hood River facilities. The minibus is called BART, a nod to the Bay Area metro rail system’s acronym, but modified to mean Bingen Area Rapid Transit.  ?

Separately, Insitu is supporting a proposed upzone in Hood River to allow developers to create more housing on the city's west side.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.