Tech company at ATMC in Fall River plans to manufacture power systems for unmanned aerial drones

By Michael Gagne

The technology to power medium-sized unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, is closer than one would think.

In fact, that technology could be manufactured in Fall River as soon as next spring.

The Lakeville-based company O’Neill Power Systems has taken up residency at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center on Martine Street.

The company’s plan, according to founder and president James O’Neill, is to deliver a system that can power unmanned aerial vehicles for use in industries other than the military and espionage.

The civil aviation, agriculture and public safety sectors would all benefit from the efficiency of O’Neill’s UAV, the prototypes of which have already been designed and built — twice — explained the company’s chief executive officer, Jerry Kelly.

UAVs can revolutionize those industries, especially agriculture, according to O’Neill. Using a UAV instead of manned vehicles, which can cost companies as much as $1,200 per hour, could increase cost-efficiency in activities like crop-dusting and water irrigation.

The technology is already used for crop-dusting in other countries, including Japan, where it accounts for 90 percent of all crop-dusting, Kelly said.

Theirs would be a lightweight system, with low horsepower, operated with a single turbine, instead of a conventional manned helicopter, which has a tail. In 2012, it was named among the top 10 inventions by the magazine Popular Science.

Before their already patented system, called the Noreaster 44, can go on the market, it needs to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Getting that approval can be a prolonged process, so O’Neill is manufacturing the systems as it waits.

“The first thing we need to do is we need to be in front. There’s going to be a prolonged development time,” Kelly explained.

With a 12 percent annual growth rate, UAVs are the fastest-growing segment of the world aerospace industry, according to Kelly.

“This is the highest growth area,” he said. “We have something that the market needs that is unique.”

He described the opportunity. The market is currently dominated by UAVs that fall into two classifications: there are large turbine systems generally used by the military and small battery-powered UAVs. But there are no in-between vehicles.

O’Neill said the technology they’re delivering is something that’s absent right now.

UAVs can be used as first-responders in emergency situations like a fire, “rather than putting people in harm’s way.” They could also be used in remote mountainous areas inaccessible by manned vehicles.
Internet retail giant Amazon announced last week it would develop UAVs capable of providing nearly instant delivery to customers.

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