Detroit company builds drones for public safety use; City eyed as hub for unmanned aircraft


David Muller

DETROIT, MI – Jon Rimanelli said he believes unmanned aircraft is the next big thing in aviation, and he sees no reason why Detroit, with its engineering and manufacturing capacity, can’t play a major role in the burgeoning sector.

Rimanelli and his staff of six at Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC) rent two hangars at the nearly vacant Coleman Young Municipal Airport, where they build drones designed to fly reconnaissance missions for law enforcement and first responders, or to deliver packages for large companies such as UPS or FedEx. The latter use is big news this week with announcing it hopes to deliver packages with drones by 2015.

“This is a product we hope to have for sale within the next three months,” Rimanelli said, gesturing to one of the unmanned aircraft he has in a small workshop at the airport. “It’s a question of getting the design right and then offering them for sale, because everybody’s out there selling these things for forty- or sixty-thousand dollars a unit. We want to deliver it for under ten (thousand dollars).”

The near-term focus of DAC is on aiding law enforcement and first responders.
The aircraft Rimanelli and his staff “will basically allow law enforcement, or neighborhood watch organizations, to deploy these things on demand. We could provide an aviation unit basically for every law enforcement agency on the ground at a very low cost.”

DAC is talking to Wayne County and Macomb County about possible uses, he said. “Essentially they’re just waiting for us to finish our design,” he added.

Although the Internet advertises drones selling for as low as $150, Rimanelli brushed those off as “hobby grade.”

The so-called octocopters, quadcopters and other aircraft that DAC is developing includes a military-grade radio, first-person viewing technology with a remote camera (see video below) and the ability to carry a 12-pound package.

One of the vehicles Rimanelli has in development is a linear aircraft that could take off and land vertically like a helicopter and fly horizontally like an airplane. It includes a cabin for passengers.

Rimanelli re-chartered the DAC name in 2011, but its history dates back to 1922 as Aircraft Development Corporation. What would then become DAC would go on to own several other companies including Lockheed-Vega Aircraft Company in a short amount of time. The entire company was dissolved shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, but the Lockheed name got a second chance after a group of investors bought the assets of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for $40,000, and later that company grew into the $46 billion global aerospace and defense firm today known as Lockheed-Martin.

Rimanelli, a commercial pilot, also in 2000 founded Nextronix, a printed circuit board solutions company. He is using the Nextronics technology to develop an unmanned aircraft that has circuit boards in its frame, apparently making it lighter than current drones on the market.

Rimanelli is not enthusiastic about the use of the word “drones” to refer the unmanned aircraft he is developing. He calls it a “Hollywood” word that has been misused in the media.

Still, the media appears to be seeing drones as less a tool of military destruction and more as something that could have civilian use.

On Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes featured a plan by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos for “Amazon Prime Air,” a drone delivery program that Bezos said could make delivery time of the online retail giant’s products as low as 30 minutes. Seeing octocopters and quadcopters carrying packages across your local airspace will not happen any time soon, though, Bezos acknowledged.

The Federal Aviation Administration still does not allow commercial unmanned aircraft use, though the agency has laid out a plan. Bezos said 2015 would be an optimistic date for the launch of Amazon Prime Air.

Meanwhile, Rimanelli is trying to get Michigan to be one of six states where the FAA tests commercial unmanned air traffic.

“As I understand we are now in the top eight of six potential sites,” said Rimanelli, who founded Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium (MI-UAS) to help land the FAA”s testing program in Michigan. “We went form 37th on the list to number eight, so I think that our chances are really good. Detroit is one of the UAS test site locations along with Battle Creek, and some other airports in northern Michigan as part of a group of airports that would engage in this type of testing.”

Rimanelli sees commercial unmanned air traffic as a certainty, and hopes Detroit could leverage its assets to grow the sector.

“One thing that’s sure is there is going to be a radical shift in aviation as we know it within the next couple years,” he said. “Whether it be small packages or semi-autonomous passenger aircraft. We think this is a Goldilocks moment, if you will, because we got all the industrial, manufacturing capacity here in the region.”

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