UAV's Made In Detroit

Detroit Aircraft and Lockheed Martin have partnered to revive Detroit and provide first-responders with emerging UAV technology. The partnership reveals how distributors can work with major UAV manufacturers.
By Emily Aasand | November 26, 2014

It began in the early 1920s. Founded by Edsel Ford, William Stout, and other industry leaders, Detroit Aircraft Corp. was, at one time, the world’s largest aviation holding company. In 1929, adding to the companies under its umbrella, Detroit Aircraft purchased 87 percent of the assets of (what became) Lockheed Corp., just months before the stock market crashed, ruining the aircraft market and plunging Detroit Aircraft into bankruptcy, receivership and dissolution.       

Five days after Detroit Aircraft closed its doors, in 1932, Lockheed Aircraft Corp. Division was bought out of receivership by a group of investors and, in 1934, became Lockheed Corp. The company merged with Martin Marietta, in 1995, and has since become known for its global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technology services.

In 2007, Jon Rimanelli, an avid pilot, began working to revive the Detroit Aircraft name. He had learned of the Red Bull Air Races that are held in various locations around the world and began researching air racing. Rimanelli says he thought the banks of the Detroit River would be a perfect location and proposed it as the site for the 2010 Red Bull North America’s Air Races. In the process of making his successful pitch for the event, Rimanelli discovered the rich aviation history of Detroit.

“One of my biggest arguments [to host the races] was all the history in Detroit. From Charles Lindbergh being born here to Boeing being from here. All the aviation history here is incredible,” says Rimanelli. “It was the perfect opportunity to restore aircraft manufacturing in the city of Detroit.”

With the 2010 races accomplished, and armed with knowledge of the city's history, Rimanelli believed the time was right to revive the defunct Detroit Aircraft. He contacted Bruce Holmes, former NASA Langley chief strategist, who led NASA’s small aircraft transportation systems, to see what NASA had been studying in the area of mass producing small aircraft systems, and here he found his next business idea.

On July 11, 2011, Rimanelli founded Detroit Aircraft, a new company, under the same moniker, designed to “leverage Detroit and Michigan’s skilled labor and industrial base to mass produce highly automated freight and passenger transportation systems to network to the United States’s 20,000 airports.”

“The rule of thumb, if you ever want to start in business, is to think big, start small,” says Rimanelli. “So I decided to focus on small UAS for first response and public safety because Detroit has a very large area to manage and I saw that as a force multiplier. We spent a lot of time doing homework, researching and building multi-rotor helicopters to get some experience.”

In 2013, Rimanelli began visiting with Lockheed Martin. During those conversations, Lockheed Martin mentioned it had spent several years designing and developing the Indago unmanned aircraft platform and that there was potential for Detroit Aircraft to be a distributer of that platform.

“We had several meetings. They came to Detroit a couple of times—one for a meet and greet with city officials and another to demonstrate and present the Indago to various agencies in the region,” says Rimanelli. “They decided that we would make an excellent distributor, we signed a distributor agreement, and during that process we told them we were also interested in manufacturing for them.”

The company has not only become an Indago platform distributor in Detroit, it has also branched out to other cities. Detroit Aircraft recently sold a vehicle to a Louisiana police department and is currently finalizing certificate of authorization (COA) applications with Detroit fire department.

“He has also bought the right to do top-level manufacturing and top-level assembling from me,” says Dave Pringle, site general manager at Lockheed Martin for Procerus Technologies.

“It’s kind of interesting how we went from a phone call a year ago to becoming a distributor to becoming a supplier,” says Rimanelli. “It’s a very unique relationship.”

The Vehicle
The Indago is a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) quadcopter with a weight of just under 5 pounds.

“It has multiple capabilities and uses that we are looking to market,” says Pringle. “Public safety is one of those, and Jon is attacking that market very heavily.”

The unmanned aircraft folds into two small cases—one that actually carries the VTOL itself and the other one houses the hand controller—all of which fits into a backpack.

“It’s nice for public safety—law enforcement, search and rescue—because of its quick set up,” says Pringle. “It can be set up in less than two minutes and be up in the air. It has a leading endurance within the industry ranging between 45 minutes to an hour of endurance depending on the situational use of the vehicle.”

The Indago can fly between 25 and 35 miles per hour and has a ceiling height of more than 18,000 feet.

Lifesaving Partnership
Todd Sedlak is the lead trainer at Detroit Aircraft with more than 3,500 flight hours. He is also a firefighter, and helped facilitate when Detroit Aircraft and Lockheed Martin developed a partnership with the City of Detroit and the Detroit Fire Department.

“When I was able to take these two skill sets that I have as an unmanned systems operator and a firefighter, the utility was obvious to me,” says Sedlak. “We set up meetings with the Detroit Fire Department and I explained the utility to them and they were immediately on board.”

Detroit Aircraft has applied for a COA and is expected to receive it within the next month, at which point, it will conduct training for the Detroit Fire Department.

Detroit Aircraft has been looking into dilapidated areas of the city to perform mock search and rescue missions or hazmat scenarios and to train other Fire Departments how to improve their efficiencies in fighting fires using unmanned systems, says Rimanelli.

“We have more fire issues than anywhere else in the country, which would make an ideal training location for other agencies in the United States to learn how to use these vehicles in first response and fire application,” says Rimanelli. “That’s our strategy. To create an academy to train other fire agencies and first responders on how to use them here in the city of Detroit.”

Rimanelli says he and his company have seen an interest from other fire departments across the country.

“Our goal is to make sure that these technologies are affordable and accessible for every law enforcement team, every first response team and every fire department in the nation,” says Rimanelli. “It’s a tool that mitigates risks, increases efficiencies and can help save lives.”  

UAS Vision
The unmanned aircraft vehicle industry within Lockheed Martin is spread across several business units, the Indago is the only platform Pringle has at Procerus Technologies, but Lockheed Martin offers a wide range of systems including fixed-wing platforms.

As for Procerus Technologies, Pringle says he and his team are focusing on the U.S. Department of Defense market as well as the international and public safety markets.

“My team is a relatively small, commercial entity of Lockheed Martin,” says Pringle. “We just received our first program of record with our preceptor gimbal with the U.S. Army. We will continue to focus on the U.S. Army. Opportunities within the Department of Defense is one of my big focus areas, but we’re also taking our products internationally and forming alliances with agents in other countries.”

In the U.S., Lockheed Martin and Detroit Aircraft are no different than any other U.S. firm waiting to hear on the Federal Aviation Association regulations.

“The last I heard [on the FAA ruling] is that there’s going to be a release by the end of the year where they [the FAA] will lay out an 18-month plan describing the process allowing people to qualify vehicles and operators as well as lay out the parameters upon which they’ll allow the aircraft to fly,” says Pringle.

“I’m hoping and looking forward to the FAA streamlining the process because it’s my belief that getting this technology to the people who need it the most is a big priority, not only as a company, but as a nation,” says Rimanelli. “It’s a moral responsibility, in my opinion.”

“The reemergence of Detroit Aircraft, the reemergence of the city, and creating jobs here in the industry, is for me, the bigger story,” says Rimanelli. “It’s been fun because it’s an opportunity to give kids who don’t see much of a future in Detroit an idea, an opportunity to have a different type of job in aviation. I’d say the broader mission of the company is that at the end of the day, we’re successful in delivering this technology to the masses and first response. I would say long-term, I think unmanned systems are the foundation for a highly automated air transportation system in the future.”

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
[email protected]



A state affair

The Michigan State Police purchased the Aeryon SkyRanger, a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS), to evaluate for state-wide unmanned aircraft system (UAS) integration. 

“It’s such a new technology that we believe it can enhance law enforcement in several different areas,” says 1st Lt. Chris Bush, commander field support and aviation section, Michigan State Police special operations division. “We’ll probably start out with some search and rescue calls, tactical calls and we’re looking at doing some mapping on our critical infrastructure in the state.”

The MSP is currently operating under a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration training certificate of authorization (COA) to train officers in a number of public safety scenarios, says Aeryon Labs Inc., developers of the SkyRanger. “The goal of the UAS program is to enable officers to operate the Aeryon SkyRangers in applications such as critical incident and natural disaster response, search and rescue, traffic accident reconstruction, as well as scene photography,” says the company.

“After the success of the UAS training scenarios, we look forward to receiving the operational COA for the entire state,” says Bush. “Our emergency response and investigation teams are anticipating the benefits of using the Aeryon SkyRanger in the field.”

Michigan is home to four of the top 10 most violent cities in the country and the Michigan State Police say they hope to implement this new technology to better those cities.

“For the Michigan State Police agency to provide operational UAS capabilities for 83 counties is a significant deployment, especially with training operators who might not have previous experience flying unmanned systems,” says Dave Kroetsch, Aeryon Labs president and CEO. “We know that the Aeryon SkyRanger’s easy-to-use interface will help speed up the roll out process and ensure that first responders can gain critical field data quickly and accurately.”