BINGEN — Insitu, a Boeing Co. subsidiary that is on the cutting edge of the booming unmanned aircraft industry, is digging deeper roots in the rural Columbia River Gorge town of Bingen.
Company executives were joined Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee and other dignitaries at a groundbreaking ceremony for Insitu's 120,000-square-foot production facility for the aircraft, commonly called drones. When the building is completed in 2014, the company will consolidate many operations now scattered in Columbia Gorge towns in both Washington and Oregon. The company also has offices in Vancouver.
"We are spread over 17 buildings," Steve Morrow, Insitu's president and chief executive officer, said at the groundbreaking ceremony overlooking the Columbia River's shimmering whitecaps. "It will be good to finally have a place to anchor us."
Inslee said Insitu's planned Bingen facility, which will house about 180 of its workers under one roof, bodes well for the tiny town and the state of Washington. The company selected the waterfront site at the Port of Klickitat in late 2011, narrowed down from a field of 30 proposals in Gorge towns in Oregon and Washington.
"When you put down roots here, you gave an economic boost to the state of Washington," Inslee said of Insitu, which was launched in Bingen in 1994 by garage inventors Tad McGeer and Andy von Flotow, at a time when few people had heard of drones.
Insitu now has $400 million in annual revenue and 800 workers. It was purchased by Boeing in 2008.
Inslee tied Insitu's technology and riverfront site to its parent company, started in 1916 by William Boeing in the now-famous Red Barn factory on the Duwamish River in Seattle.
"This is the type of home-grown industry typical of the state of Washington," Inslee said.
Afterward, he posed in front of Insitu's ScanEagle aircraft, the company's most successful product. The remote-controlled devices are equipped with cameras that can film and transmit real-time video without being detected in war zones. ScanEagle, which at its lightest weighs about 40 pounds, also is used for nonmilitary purposes, such as marine life surveillance and wildfire detection.
"This is truly an emergent industry in aviation," Inslee said.
The governor used the event to call for new rules to open U.S. airspace, now closed to Insitu's ScanEagle due to Federal Aviation Administration rules that ban the lighter-weight, unmanned planes but allow the heavier Predator drones.
The FAA has said it hopes to integrate unmanned civil, public and military aircraft into the same airspace by 2015.
Inslee also pledged his loyalty to Insitu, one of Southwest Washington's key manufacturers and a major employer of residents from towns throughout the Gorge.
"I'm personally committed to make sure our state stays committed to this industry," Inslee said. "Not just to its maintenance, but its growth." Morrow, who has headed the company since April 2011, said concentrating production work under one roof will help Insitu save money and time, and also encourage teamwork.
"When people are in the same building, they collaborate better," he said. "It creates synergy."
In addition to production staff, the new building will house employees who handle inventory, maintenance, propulsion engineering, quality and procurement. Plans for the building will take advantage of river views and natural light, with designs to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Insitu will lease its approximately 8-acre site from the Port of Klickitat and lease its new building at Bingen Point from an investor, an arrangement that appears to sit well with residents of the tiny town. Many had feared the company's relocation when it launched a search for production sites.
But the new building's site appears to give Bingen the nod as Insitu's highly coveted permanent headquarters, said Jill Vacek, a spokeswoman for Insitu.
"It's kind of a sure sign that we're staying here," she said.