Taking (unmanned) flight: Longmont start-up wants to take the lead in drone technology


By Tony Kindelspire

Unmanned Aerial Systems — sometimes called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, but most commonly referred to as “drones” — often carry a negative connotation in people’s minds.

That’s why Longmont start-up company Iron Ridge UAS doesn’t like to use the word. It can convey images of Al-Qaeda operatives being taken out by our government, or worse yet, the government using them to spy on us.

But Iron Ridge sees the technology as a huge opportunity economically. And it intends to position itself to be a leader in the industry by the time the Federal Aviation Administration issues its rules governing commercial drone use in a few years.

At present the FAA treats drones — when it comes to them flying in what’s called the National Air Space — essentially like model airplanes, keeping them, with rare exceptions, on a tight leash. Rules state they cannot be used for commercial purposes; they can only be flown by line-of-sight in daylight hours; and they must stay below 400 feet off the ground.

But there are ways around those rules, and that’s why Iron Ridge appeared before the Airport Advisory Board Thursday night and will be in front of the Longmont City Council Tuesday.

“What we’re doing with the city is applying for a certificate of authorization that allows us special flying privileges,” said Dan Ganousis, Iron Ridge’s interim CEO.

Ganousis’s background is in electrical engineering and chip design but he’s also a self-described “serial entreprenuer,” having been a part of 19 start-up companies. He founded Iron Ridge UAS late last year with Oliver Mazurkiewicz, the company’s chief operations officer and founder of Iron Ridge Arms, a long-time firearms component manufacturer in Longmont. Their team includes experts in using advanced composite materials in manufacturing and in mechanical design as it relates to the aerospace industry.

Iron Ridge is hoping to raise $1.3 million from investors while also getting approval from the city to open a manufacturing and design facility at Vance Brand Airport. The money would be used not only to begin manufacturing its planes but also to fund research and development work for the next generation of planes.

Even though they’re a start-up, they’re ceding nothing to the competition that’s already out there, the founders say.

“We’re applying aerospace technology, not hobby technology, to the process,” Mazurkiewicz said.

The upside to getting in on the ground floor

Although drones cannot be used for commercial purposes yet, they are in use all over the country. One common use is by farmers, who use them to survey their land or keep an eye on the condition of their soil or their crops.

In these instances the farmers contract with agricultural service providers that fly the drones for them. FAA rules state farmers “may operate an unmanned aircraft over their property for personal use” — under the previously noted model airplane rules. Since the farmers are using them to survey their own land, not National Air Space, that’s not considered a commercial use.

The arrangement Iron Ridge is trying to set up with the city is slightly different.

“The certificate of authorization would be to the city of Longmont as the operator of the aircraft,” explained airport manager Tim Barth. “As long as we’re using it for government-related activities, it’s not considered a model.”

But having use of a drone to, for example, survey flood damage is not the primary reason the city is interested in Iron Ridge, Barth said.

“If you partner with a public agency you can do (research and development),” he said, adding that the University of Colorado, Mesa County and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all have drones, because they’re public entities.

“Our primary benefit is economic development,” Barth said. “We’ll get to have a manufacturing operation on the airport that’s going to create jobs. That’s what we think.”

Meanwhile, Iron Ridge will be manufacturing and selling its UAS planes to whomever wants to buy them, all the while doing research and development to improve their product. Their plan, say the founders, is that when the FAA comes out with its rules regarding commercial use of drones — by 2017, according to congressional mandate — the company will be a major player straight out of the gate.

According to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the economic impact of drones flying commercially in the U.S. is expected to be about $13.6 billion in just the first three years and more than five times that by 2025. It will also create tens of thousands of new jobs.

Flying longer with more data-gathering capacity

According to Iron Ridge’s business plan, its drones will be priced at around $30,000 apiece, with the price coming down as production ramps up. But the sensors and software the plane carries can be as sophisticated as a customer wants them to be, Ganousis said.

The battery powered planes can be programmed to fly automatically — following points on a map programmed into the software — or manually, either by hand-set or, if it’s a flight that’s not line-of-sight, by the operator using goggles to see what the camera mounted on the drone sees.

The applications are vast, Ganousis said: Vinters today are using drones with sensors that fly over their vineyards and detect which sections have the grapes ripe for picking. Municipalities can use drones equipped with thermo-vision sensors to can fly over power lines and detect which ones are losing energy because the insulation is wearing. And oil and gas companies are using them to measure methane levels around oil and gas wells.

Ganousis said he’s spent the past few months seeking investors. So far he and Mazurkiewicz and their small team have raised about $180,000, mostly through friends and families.

The prospectus for potential investors includes a chart comparing the Iron Ridge UAS to two other types, a Quad Copter and a Flying Wing. The chart notes the Iron Ridge has signficant advantages over the other two in payload capacity, flight time and the number of sensors it can carry.

It also carries a higher price tag then the other two but the Iron Ridge founders say their planes are still a better value for customers who need a more robust vehicle.

Iron Ridge hand-makes all its own molds, and the fusealage and wings are molded out of 100 percent carbon fiber. To highlight how durable their plane is, Mazurkiewicz told the story of one day, being out in the country and test-flying it. He said as he went into his hand-toss — that’s how the Iron Ridge UAS is launched — he slipped in the mud and the plane flew for just long enough to pick up speed and then it slammed hard into the ground. Instruments later showed it hit with a force of 11 ½ G’s.

“The only thing to break was a couple propellers that broke off,” Ganousis said.

Easy customization is another selling point they’re pitching to investors, the founders said.

“Basically it’s a modular system design so you can add to the wings, add to the fuselage, and you can increase the payload capacity,” Mazurkiewicz said.

Ganousis said he has customers lined up to buy the planes once they can get their manufacturing operations set up. Tuesday night’s Longmont City Council meeting — it starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 350 Kimbark St. — is an imporant step in making that happen.

“We’re just fine-tuning the software, we just came out with a new rudder that we developed,” Ganousis said. “And we hope to move into a new facility out at the airport in May or June, that’s our goal. And we want to begin building about 15 to 20 birds a month.”