In a small backroom in a hangar at Detroit’s Coleman A. Young International Airport, entrepreneur Jon Rimanelli hopes his new business will soon take flight.
Rimanelli’s Detroit Aircraft develops and builds unmanned aircraft systems, popularly known as drones. Unlike large fixed-wing military drones often seen on the nightly news, Rimanelli’s craft are small, almost toy like, often no more than two or three feet across, and are designed so far mainly for use by firefighters, the Coast Guard and other first-responders.
But Rimanelli is one of hundreds of enthusiasts around the nation who see a whole new industry taking off as soon as government regulators clear the way. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is studying issues around the use of drones and may be issuing new safety guidelines by 2015, including the use of these small pilotless craft for commercial purposes, something that is now forbidden by law.
“Right now, what we’re focused on is first-response applications. Firefighters, special response teams, search and rescue, Coast Guard, border patrol ops,” Rimanelli said recently in his shop. Rimanelli’s goal now is to partner with government, industry and universities to create an industrial cluster at Detroit’s east-side airport. Such a cluster could help shift Detroit’s aging industrial base toward newer aeronautics fields.
“This technology is going to make it very accessible for people to get into aviation without an extraordinary amount of training,” Rimanelli said. “This is where the opportunity is.”
Growth and success for the drone business would add some punch to an already ambitious planned reinvestment at the airport, commonly referred to as Detroit City Airport, by the city, if emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy restructuring plan is approved. His plan calls for a $28.5-million investment in facilities to attract more commerce and also for development of a master plan to discern how a renewed airport could boost the troubled east Detroit neighborhood around the airport near Gratiot Avenue and French Road.
A rosy outlook
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the industry trade group, estimates that pilotless systems could create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $80 billion in economic impact over the next 10 years once the FAA gives the go-ahead.
“The biggest fear that the FAA has is safety,” Rimanelli said. “They don’t want these running into an aircraft in the sky or falling on somebody’s head.”
The industry is expected to be split among giant aerospace firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin and the small entrepreneurs like Rimanelli. The garage tinkerers can contribute a lot, said Ben Gielow, general counsel and senior government relations manager for AUVSI.
“That’s where a lot of this work is being done as well, the miniaturization of a lot of different sensors and cameras and other type of technology that can be utilized,” Gielow said.
The industry dislikes the term “drones” for a lot of reasons.
“ ‘Drones’ we do frown on,” Gielow said. “We prefer the term ‘unmanned aircraft system.’ The vehicle is one component but it’s also the operator on the ground and it’s also the data link, how the operator is in communication with the vehicle itself.”
Once FAA guidelines are issued, whole new applications beyond law enforcement could spring up quickly. The AUVSI report suggested that 80% of the uses for pilotless craft will be in agriculture.
“The reality is law enforcement and their use of this technology is a very, very small slice,” Rimanelli said. “It probably represents under 10% of the total applications of these technologies. Agriculture is a massive, massive market. This could be a huge tool for them.”
Farmers might use drones to survey their crops, using pilotless aircraft to measure when crops are ready for harvest, to survey damage after storms, or to take any number of measures of crop health.
“You couldn’t do it on a helicopter because the disturbance from the prop wash would knock everything over,” Rimanelli said. “So what’s nice about these smaller multi-rotor vehicles or fixed wing aircraft is that you can get in there, not disturb the environment, and get your images.”
Rimanelli is an electronics entrepreneur and private pilot with more than 700 hours of flight time. He helped bring the 2008 Detroit Red Bull Air Race event to the city. Today, his Detroit Aircraft firm maintains and restores classic aircraft from its base at the airport, where recently mechanics were working on a cluster of rare airbirds including old fighter trainers and seaplanes.
In the back of the hangar, in a room Rimanelli calls his “humble little workshop,” he and a small staff develop their drones, which look more like fixed-wing aircraft or even helicopters than like a child’s toy. A typical one may be two feet across and have three to five helicopter-style rotors each a few inches long. Hanging below a frame might be a motion picture camera to capture aerial shots or other monitoring equipment.
One prototype has a chemical detection device mounted atop a simple drone body. The device contains data on 11,000 chemical signatures connected to a laser. Once aloft over an emergency scene, the laser aims into a danger scene such as a chemical fire and the device identifies the substances involved and communicates that back to ground controllers. First-responders then know how to approach the problem.
“These are mission-driven, can be as small as what fits in your hand,” Rimanelli said. “The customer says I need an aircraft with this type of sensor on it — infrared, laser tracking, toxic chemical sensing, and I need it to be able to fly in this environment and to last this amount of time and so depending on the needs of the mission, you design an aircraft.”
Detroit Free Press: http://www.freep.com/article/20140413/BUSINESS06/304130048/drones-Detroit