BY JERRY SIEBENMARK The Wichita Eagle
The Wichitans behind Blue Chip Unmanned Aerial Solutions are hoping to capitalize on what they think will be growing commercial demand for unmanned aircraft.
The startup company at Newton City-County Airport was founded last year by Clint Stevens, Andrew Fawcett, James Burns and James McCosh, who collectively have more than 40 years’ experience with military aircraft operations and commercial aviation, said Stevens, Blue Chip’s chief operating officer.
Using several drone aircraft, including a fixed-wing Sensurion Magpie and a multirotor Altus Delta X-8, the company aims to provide imaging, point cloud, three-dimensional mapping and other aerial services to industries such as agriculture, oil and gas, construction and filmmaking, Stevens said.
“The applications are really endless,” he said.
The company is one of half a dozen in Kansas – and the only one in the Wichita area – to receive an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate commercial drones, according to information from the FAA. Blue Chip is also bonded and insured.
Stevens and Fawcett, Blue Chip’s chief executive, said it was important to them to have the FAA exemption, insurance and bonding in place before they began soliciting business from commercial customers. “That’s one thing that sets us apart,” Stevens said.
The FAA is developing rules for the operation of small drones in the nation’s airspace and in the interim has developed a process in which firms wanting to use small drones commercially can do so legally and safely. Part of the exemption’s requirement is that pilots of small drones hold a minimum of a recreational or sport pilot certificate. Stevens said one of the company’s partners has a commercial pilot’s license, and Blue Chip has an intern from the Kansas State University-Salina campus this summer who also has a pilot’s license.
Since receiving the FAA exemption in February, Stevens and his Blue Chip partners have been working to build the company’s revenue stream.
Blue Chip is actively “exploring opportunities” with companies including Cornejo & Sons and is partnering with a Michigan-based company to design applications for unmanned aircraft and landfill management, Stevens said.
It also is partnering with Altus UAS – a New Zealand-based company that manufactures the Delta X-8 that Blue Chip operates – to serve as its U.S. hub for distribution, training and maintenance.
Stevens and Fawcett said they expect to relocate Blue Chip’s operations to Wichita to accommodate the Altus partnership and are looking at different sites in the city.
Blue Chip has recruited outside investors Jim and Iva Ballard, the founders and former owners of Wichita-based EagleMed, an air ambulance service the Ballards sold in 2009.
The Ballards, who operate Ballard Aviation at Newton City-County Airport, which restores pre-owned Beechcraft King Airs, became investors and partners in Blue Chip about three months ago.
“They really are a great team,” Jim Ballard said. “They’re young guys, but I tell you, they have a lot of knowledge.”
Ballard said he’s bullish on their business and the unmanned aircraft industry.
“It’s just really something I think can go a long ways in the future,” he said.
The Ballards also are advising Blue Chip on its operations.
“To me, it’s similar to the operations we had … at EagleMed. It’s similar to a (FAA Part) 135 (charter) operation,” Ballard said.