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Pandemic assistance helps Concord drone company ArgenTech Solutions expand

When the furloughs first came, the future for Rene Roy was unclear.

The Bow resident had worked for years at BirdsEyeView Aeronautics, a drone manufacturing company in Andover, serving as a commercially licensed pilot and manufacturing technician. At once, a global pandemic and economic crash was upending all of that.

After BirdsEyeView briefly shuttered, much of its highly skilled workforce was left adrift. Drone design and piloting is not exactly a universally requested skill.

But Roy found a lifeboat. As restaurants and retail shops laid off staff and braced for long term closures, one Concord company was actually expanding its workforce. And they happened to work in the drone business, too.

ArgenTech Solutions has been staying afloat throughout the pandemic, building and improving on drones for military and non-military use. The Concord company was able hire three new employees this spring, saving Roy and others from uncertainty.

Throughout, one program has helped that happen: the Paycheck Protection Program. The federally backed loan program has allowed those in the food service industry to hang on by a thread, by providing “loans” that become instantly forgiven if companies dedicate a high enough percentage to paying wages.

But for some companies, like ArgenTech, the money has also helped them grow.

This week, lawmakers in Washington are working to fund and distribute another round of PPP loans, which have dried up for companies since May. On Monday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen toured the ArgenTech facilities to discuss the impact of the funds.

“We’re close on another round of help for small businesses,” she said.

However, this time around, Shaheen says, there will likely be tighter controls over who qualifies for the aid.

“There’s a requirement – and this is still under debate – but that in order to get that second round you have to show at least a 50% reduction in revenues because of COVID,” Shaheen said, adding that both Democrats and Republicans have agreed.

For ArgenTech, the aid has been a boon, if not quite a lifesaver.

The drone company was determined to be an essential business by New Hampshire early on, which meant it didn’t have to close. But the company was still in an uncertain position financially. Supply chains were nearly broken. It was unclear whether they could complete orders.

Incomplete orders could have been a death sentence. So when the federally backed Paycheck Protection Program got off the ground, the company rushed to apply early.

“We were right at the front of the line,” said Brian Veroneau, the chief financial officer. “We were just aggressive at being ready, and had everything lined up.”

Now, the company has been hard at work at keeping orders moving and keep innovating, which has required long hours from its staff. Business was shaky, but it’s beginning to pick back up, Veroneau says.

Nineteen years after the start of the Afghanistan war, many are quick to judge drones. The word has such heavy connotations that the company doesn’t like to use the name, preferring “unmanned aircraft system” or UAS.

But for those at ArgenTech, the applications go far beyond the miltary, company leaders say.

ArgenTech supplies drones for a range of tasks including survey work in South America, wildfire management in California and post-hurricane relief in the Caribbean. The advantages are limitless, CEO Keith Haney says.

The company has long hired from a diverse pool, drawing everywhere from alumni of New Hampshire’s First Robotics program to ex-military drone operators looking for something “a little less stressful,” Haney jokes.

When the pandemic hit, though, that hiring model came under threat.

Bob Long experienced that himself. The New London resident had been working at BirdsEyeView as a software engineer for two years when the layoffs came in February. As a young adult in New Hampshire, Long was worried the upheaval could mean he’d have to leave the state.

“There’s not a whole lot of work for small unmanned air system engineers in New Hampshire, so it was pretty exciting to get a job at the other company here,” he said.

But the PPP loans gave ArgenTech flexibility, and now Long is part of the team.

For now, whether the PPP program continues is up to Congress, and a lengthy series of high-wire negotiations.

Talks between Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and the White House are still ongoing. Continuing hang-ups include how to distribute school funding, whether to set aside a state and local state funding allocation, the extent to which the $600 unemployment assistance will be renewed, and how much money to put forward for testing and contact tracing, according to Shaheen.

A second round of PPP does have broad agreement, Shaheen says, though Democrats want to limit the recipient pool to companies with 100 or fewer employees and Republicans want the upper limit at 300 employees.

“I think people feel that despite some of the early challenges, it’s worked very well,” Shaheen said. “We’ve heard that here. And that there are small businesses that still need that in order to get through the next couple months.

Still, the next round will likely be targeted only to those who would lose money otherwise.

ArgenTech might not meet that criteria the next time around. But the assistance it did get went a long way, leaders say.

“We didn’t have to lay anyone off and, as well, got to hire some good, local employees,” Veroneau said.