Aero Tech Town

Detroit City Airport has established an industrial R&D cluster to develop the next generation of aircraft, including civilian drones.


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Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

The Coleman A. Young International Airport on Detroit’s east side has two runways, a passenger terminal, a U.S. Customs facility, several dozen hangars, and an aviation fuel and aircraft service provider. What it lacks is passenger service — unless someone is taking off in or landing a private jet.

No matter. Jon Rimanelli and his Detroit Aircraft LLC have established a factory on the second floor of the passenger terminal, where surveillance drones for the military and public safety agencies are being designed and built. Other customers include movie producers, real estate agencies, utilities, and farmers who can put a drone equipped with a high-definition camera, communications equipment, and other gadgets to good use.   

Even though Detroit leadership looked to privatize the 263-acre city-owned airport in a bid to shore up more than $200 million in the current overall municipal debt, the proposal didn’t go far. The federal government requires cities to identify replacement subsidies prior to an airport privatization plan. A city also is prevented from arbitrarily closing an airport.

Besides Rimanelli, others also see the potential the airport has to offer.

“What we have is an underutilized asset, which spells opportunity,” says Jason Watt, director of Detroit City Airport. “We leased out space to Detroit Aircraft, and we are reviewing several other leases from companies eager to take advantage of our adjacent runways and airspace to meet the FAA mandate to upgrade the nation’s air traffic communications system.”

In May, Watt’s presentation to transform the airport received a warm welcome from the Detroit City Council, which agreed unanimously to keep funding in place for the foreseeable future. Watt anticipates the city’s annual subsidy for the airport will be $200,000 next year, down from $800,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Driving the leasing activity — along with an uptick in hangar rentals, landing fees, and concessions — is the $63.4-billion FAA Reauthorization Bill signed into law by President Obama in March, often referred to as Next Generation, or NextGen. The legislation opens up funding for the development and installation of a GPS-based satellite communication system by 2020 on all passenger, cargo, and general aviation aircraft.

Most aircraft today use radar and party line radio to communicate their position and undertake flight plans in concert with control towers. That technology, developed in the 1930s, is overtaxed and wasn’t designed to accommodate a projected doubling of U.S. air traffic over the next 20 years. To appreciate the pinpoint accuracy of a GPS-enabled communication system, consider what occurs in the nation’s skies on a daily basis. During major storms, pilots of large commercial and cargo planes routinely follow smaller aircraft equipped with the latest GPS equipment. The reason: A new flight navigation system can easily identify the least turbulent flight path to a given runway.

The legislation also provides funding for future aircraft propulsion systems and designs, both manned and unmanned, for multiple uses. The law requires the Federal Aviation Administration to set rules to open the nation’s airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — better known as drones — by 2015.

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“The FAA has mandated an all-new highway in the sky,” says Rimanelli, chairman and CEO of Detroit Aircraft. “It’s the next generation of air travel where you have smaller drones flying first, followed by cargo drones. And one day — 10 years from now — people will order seats on an air taxi at the airport closest to them. The pilot will be flying the air taxi from the ground.”

Flying without a pilot onboard may be difficult for some people to accept, but it will happen; when elevators were first installed in buildings, some passengers were reluctant to ride up or down without an operator.

To take advantage of the legislation, Watt and Rim-anelli have established an industrial cluster called Aero Tech Town at Detroit City Airport. Located in the former passenger terminal and utilizing available space inside the neighboring Executive Terminal, the cluster includes R&D space for the military, private industry, and universities. The idea is for them to share resources and innovative ideas.

“We have a research center for unmanned systems which we can scale from small, hand-held devices to much larger aircraft configurations,” says Rimanelli, who is also president of Nextronix Inc. in Romulus, which designs and produces a variety of circuit boards for use in cars, aircraft, medical devices, and other industries. “We’ve moved some of our operations to City Airport, and there are more businesses waiting in the wings.”

Since the FAA legislation was passed, several firms have made plans to set up operations at Detroit City Airport, including a carbon fiber company, a wire harness manufacturer, a CNC (computer numerical control) machine shop, and an aeronautics software design company.

OLD SCHOOL, NEW SCHOOL

Detroit Aircraft, founded in 1922, owned Ryan Aircraft Co. — famous for building the Spirit of St. Louis, the one-seat plane Charles Lindbergh used to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. It also controlled 90 percent of Lockheed Martin. But Detroit Aircraft sold off its assets and plunged into receivership with the arrival of the Great Depression. Rimanelli reincorporated the company in 2011, with the purpose of attracting support and funding at City Airport for NextGen-enabled aircraft, services, and infrastructure.

The FAA is in the process of selecting six “test beds” in the United States to be used for the research, development, and implementation of NextGen. They’re scheduled to make their decision by mid-December. Needless to say, Watt and Rimanelli are aiming to establish City Airport, along with related facilities and organizations statewide, as a federal test bed. Beneficiaries include the Defense Corridor in Warren (TARDEC and TACOM), Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, Camp Grayling in northern Michigan, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, and regional facilities like Oakland County International Airport, private industry, and universities, among others.

Already, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and Lawrence Technological University have agreed to be part of Aero Tech Town. In addition to assisting with R&D activity, aerospace engineering students can test their experimental drones outdoors. “Detroit City Airport is one of the few airports in the state that offers airspace for experimental aircraft,” Watt says.

In addition, the military and private industry use Lake St. Clair as a test site for aircraft, both manned and unmanned. Initially, their work is focusing on surveillance for law enforcement applications.

And, Rimanelli hastens to add, the terrorist threat level is very high in Detroit because the border to Canada is so close. “Border security is a major, major problem,” he says, explaining that the presence of the automobile industry, one of the vital cogs of the U.S. economy, only heightens the area’s appeal as a target for terrorists.

“So the government views UAVs as a capability which can help secure the area here,” Rimanelli says, “not only for the businesses and residences, but also for terrorist activity. We can show force and dramatically improve security and safety, because the response time would be minutes, not hours.”

ENTER THE DRONES

UAVs like the Predator aircraft have gotten a lot of attention of late because of the way they’ve been operated by the U.S. military for surveillance and engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2001, the military had just a handful of UAVs. Now it has more than 10,000 drones in operation.

Law enforcement agencies across the country could benefit enormously from similar technology. Most have no air presence at all because they can’t afford helicopters or planes — a problem Rimanelli says can be solved with much cheaper, camera-loaded UAVs.

“So if we’re doing an operation out in the middle of the water,” he says, “I can send a team of small drones out and, using infrared thermal imaging, we can perform a search-and-rescue function at a fraction of the time and cost of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter or ship because I can have 10 or 15 UAVs working in concert, operating in a line, scanning an area, and sending real-time information back to military and law enforcement agencies.”

Other potential UAV uses include locating and fighting fires, tracking lost or stray livestock, scanning utility lines for damage in populated or remote areas, and public safety. A drone flying at an altitude of 14,000 feet could identify the license plate from a stolen vehicle and send the coordinates of the vehicle to law enforcement agencies. The result would be less theft and fewer car chases, experts say.

“Agriculture is where it’s going to be huge,” says John Walker, an air traffic expert who is working on Detroit City Airport’s NextGen application, “because now you can have persistent surveillance over large acreages of crops, where the owner or operator of those thousands of acres is going to know exactly when and where to harvest. They’re going to have an idea of the health of the crop, what kind of fertilizer needs to be put down and, when there’s the beginning of any kind of sign of disease, how to eradicate it.”

Walker spent 36 years with the FAA, retiring in 2001 as director of airspace. For almost half his career, he was air traffic manager for the northeast, overseeing all air traffic in the New York, Washington, and Philadelphia corridor.

GPS, which makes automated unmanned flight possible, is “a major step forward,” he says. “What we’re going to do is not unlike a car going down the highway at 80 miles an hour. We’re going to rebuild the engine and change the tires and everything else to reconfigure the car, all while it’s still moving.”

Walker emphasizes that international manufacturers are moving quickly to install GPS-equipment into aircraft. “Air China flies into Lhasa, in Tibet,” he says, “down in a canyon. The Airbus 320 is actually flying with canyon walls on the left and right. And what’s the pilot doing? Nothing. His hands are off the yoke.”

Once the entire system is in place in the U.S., air travel will be remarkably transformed, Walker says. “Picture a bunch of pipes in the air that are very tightly contained. The aircraft will stay within that pipe, on a predictable path, and never ever vary more than 20 meters, either horizontally or vertically. And what happens is the other air space around it is freed up, especially below it.”

The process of “spacing,” which dictates the arrival and departure of airplanes, has been largely inefficient up until now. “Radar is essentially a line-of-sight thing,” says Rick Carlson, manager of the transfer and safety section of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics in Lansing. “The problem with that is a time issue, as much as anything. The traffic gets heavier and the skies are more crowded. Radar is becoming too slow and it takes too long to get that radar (signal) returned to the controller. And then he has to make decisions based on old information by the time he sends it back to the pilot,” Carlson says.

The results can be wildly inefficient and costly. Every day, the nation’s 100 major airports — there are 10,000 airports overall — experience flight delays brought on by storms, dense air traffic, and limited technology. Whether back-ups occur on approach runways or in the sky, air traffic controllers perform a delicate juggling act, choreographing planes through the limited air space they have to work with.

“If they can close that space down to three miles as opposed to 10 or 20 miles, you can obviously get a lot more airplanes in the same amount of space,” Carlson says. “They’ll be able to have curved approaches, so you can bring the airplanes in almost simultaneously — into dual runways, for example, as opposed to having one behind the other, behind the other, stacked up and waiting their turn to get in. So there are many things this technology is going to permit in the future.”

All of which raises the obvious question: How soon will those remotely operated flights be chock-full of happy and relaxed passengers, winging their way to destinations around the country and around the globe?

“In some applications I’m aware of, the Army and the Marines are looking for unmanned helicopters to start carrying medical supplies and food and such to operating bases in Afghanistan (and other war time theaters), so the pilots aren’t at risk,” Walker says. “So that opens up the whole door. If you can do it in a military operation, you can do it in a civil operation.”

NEXTGEN BELIEVER

Michigan State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake), who chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee and is vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, says linking the state’s aeronautic and military facilities with private industry and universities will be key to City Airport being selected as one of the FAA’s six national test beds.

“I’ve had at least five companies talk to me about everything from building jet aircraft to small aircraft here, (as well as) companies that build landing gear, struts, and a variety of other parts that are needed in the industry,” Kowall says. “The establishment of these businesses, and then the businesses creating all these new jobs, is first and foremost in Detroit, because we saw so much of our manufacturing base leave. We’re trying very hard to bring back high-tech R&D and manufacturing jobs.”

In recent weeks, the military approved the relocation of several dozen robotic engineers and researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to Selfridge and the Defense Corridor. In addition to working on NextGen, the new workers, set to arrive in the fall, will begin to develop a secure military and public safety communication system with assistance from Aero Tech Town.

“You saw during 9/11 that the New York Police Department and the New York Fire Department weren’t able to communicate because they had different communication systems,” says Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas, an unmanned system acquisition officer with the U.S. Army. “It has gotten somewhat better, but one thing the military is looking (to do) is to develop a secure communication platform where the military, public safety agencies, law enforcement, and other related groups can easily communicate with one another.”

The government and the military are working to integrate communication between driverless cars and planes, as well. Already, the auto industry — along with Google and others — are developing autonomous vehicles. “The interoperability for ground and air-based systems is another area of growth,” Kioutas says. “Nevada just issued rules for a driverless permit, and we know Michigan is looking at it. Our motto is lighter, cheaper, and faster.”

Meanwhile, Rimanelli forges ahead, meeting not only with prospective investors, but also potential customers from every possible sector.

“Clearly, I think this is an area that’s incredibly promising,” says Ned Staebler, Wayne State University’s vice president of economic development.

Air traffic expert Walker, who for most of his professional life dealt with radar and its limits, believes NextGen will literally open up the skies.

“As a globe and as a nation, I personally believe we are on a new beach now, like the Wright brothers were at Kitty Hawk,” Walker says. “Some folks don’t know we’re there yet. And just like those boys at that bicycle shop in Ohio turned an idea into reality, that small airport in Detroit holds the potential to be one of these early bicycle shops.”

However, Walker adds, “It’s going to take a collaboration of business, industry, and local, state, and federal governments to come together in a partnership that will lead to the birth of this new form of aviation.” db

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