Verizon abandons plan to set up drone testing in North Portland


A Verizon affiliate called off plans to set up an aerial drone test facility on industrial land along the riverside in North Portland after the project sounded alarm bells among neighbors in St. Johns and among environmental and privacy advocates.

The company said it has ended lease negotiations with the Port of Portland on industrial land at Terminal 4 and is considering other unspecified locations instead.

“Pursuing these will allow us to more rapidly advance commercial drone operations for our customers, innovate and bring high quality technology jobs to the Portland area,” wrote Skyward, the aerial drone subsidiary. from Verizon in Portland, on its website Wednesday.

In an email to the city’s Development Services Office, Skyward said it had “mutually agreed” with the port to seek an alternate location for the test facility.

Opponents of the project hailed the decision.

“This is great news for the community and for the wildlife that use this stretch of the Willamette,” Portland Audubon wrote on his Facebook page.

“We applaud the port’s decision to drop this proposal and look forward to discussing further with the port how this waterfront parcel can be best and best utilized,” the organization said.

Verizon bought the Portland start-up Skyward in 2017 and continued to develop software for flight planning and drone communication from Skyward’s small downtown office.

Skyward does not make drones; its software is designed to help small vehicles comply with flight regulations and perform specific tasks for commercial customers in industries such as construction, energy and mining. Sometimes drones connect to Verizon cell towers to extend their reach.

Skyward employs just over 80 people and had planned that a staff of 15 would operate the 6.5-acre drone test site on the vacant land in Portland’s Terminal 4. The flights were said to have been mostly over water, according to the company, usually once a day for 60 to 90 minutes.

North Portland is among Portland’s most diverse and least affluent neighborhoods, and some residents see the drone business activity as yet another intrusion into a neighborhood that borders industrial sites, commercial goods, and the Port of Superfund site. Portland.

Neighbors and activists raised a variety of objections, including the noise, the potential disruption of peregrine falcons nesting under the St. Johns Bridge, and Verizon’s relationship with defense contractors.

During a community “listening session” last week, residents complained that Skyward, the City and Port of Portland had done a poor job in communicating their plans.

“We certainly don’t want drones flying around our community,” said Michael Pouncil, a North Portland resident.

“It’s not about ‘Not in our backyard’,” said Pouncil, who also chairs the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group. “We really don’t want this to be a place where Portlanders have to worry about drones flying in their community. It should be in a sparsely populated, low density area and not in an urban environment. “

Skyward president Mariah Scott apologized to neighbors for failing to recognize the depth of the community’s concerns and for not moving faster to explain their plans.

“We are a software company. We’re not used to how and when we should do this kind of community outreach, ”Scott told neighbors during last week’s listening session. “It’s new to us. We are learning that we should have engaged earlier and more proactively.

Skyward had promised to follow the city’s noise ordinances and to consult with experts on how to avoid disturbing wildlife. Scott insisted that Verizon’s military operations are distinct from the commercial and industrial customers it serves.

The port had not signed a lease with Skyward and had left open the possibility of rejecting a deal, citing community objections. Skyward had said they wanted a test facility near their downtown office.

The port did not respond to a survey on Thursday and Skyward did not immediately comment on what alternative sites it would consider.

– Mike Rogoway | | Twitter: @rogoway | 503-294-7699

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