Americas Civil

Firms set drone flight plans


By Bridget Vis

The forecast for local businesses tied to hobbyist or commercial drones? It’s taking off, although uncertainty pegged to pending Federal Aviation Administration rules makes it an unchartered area to do business.

Here’s a look at five Southeast Michigan companies focused on the world of drones — and how their business is hinged upon the federal discussion on regulation.

R4 Robotics

Karl Sachs is CEO of Birmingham-based R4 Robotics, which has been developing drone technology since 2011.

Sachs suggested that to speed up the approval process, the FAA should separate the rules for drones that operate in controlled settings (such as R4’s public utility work) and those that travel long distances across urban areas, like delivery drones.

R4 is focused on work like scanning utility lines for leaks, hot spots or other issues.

Sachs said R4 ran a pilot program with a utility company to test how drones can be used to check power poles. But he used extreme caution.

“We put out cones, rang people’s doorbells to tell them what we were doing and left notes if people didn’t answer to make sure no person would be under one of our devices,” he said.

Detroit Aircraft Corp.

Detroit Aircraft specializes in drone work for first-response, commercial and creative applications.

Jon Rimanelli, CEO of the Detroit-based company that designs, integrates and tests drones, said opening air space, even temporarily, to hobbyists opens the door to hobbyists using drones for commercial purposes.

But, he said, hobbyist drone flights potentially pose a risk to the public.

“The reality is the ruling basically will allow for a number of people — some of whom lack a proper electronic background — to go out and use drones for commercial purposes without testing their reliability or airworthiness,” he said.

In the meantime, Rimanelli said Detroit Aircraft is working with customers from the government and military, who can operate drones with certificates of authorization, and with the Detroit Fire Department, to develop a drone training center.

LunaTech 3D LLC

The Plymouth-based marketing firm has been fielding requests for aerial photographs taken by drones for six months from clients that include golf courses and real estate agents as it produces spin tours and other visualization services for clients.

The all-clear for certain categories of drones has been helpful to the company.

“Now that the doors have opened, even if it’s only for a short period of time, we will be going at it full-bore,” said company President Doug Willett.

The company integrates aerial images with Google Earth and other media to create presentations and tours for websites and other uses.

Hello Aerial LLC

Detroit-based Hello Aerial, a subsidiary of tech innovation and design company Hello Innovation Inc., has invested $1.5 million in drone technology in the past year, said Joe Joachim, CEO of Hello Aerial.

Joachim said his six-person team is focused on developing drones that will fall in between those hobbyists use and those the military use in anticipation of the FAA’s commercial drone regulations.

“We are the biggest fans of regulations because we want to get rid of the people who are operating drones without knowing what they are doing,” he said.

Hello Aerial already operates its nearly 20 drones like an airline, with pre-flight checklists and other safety measures.

In perhaps the most publicized local business response to the drone ruling, Wesley Berry, CEO of Commerce Township-based florist Wesley Berry Flowers, said he would restart the testing of using drones to deliver flowers after such tests were halted by the FAA last month.

He said drone delivery would have many advantages over the trucks his company uses for flower deliveries — such as not having to follow roads or get stuck in traffic.

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