Wings of Fortune

The next generation of aircraft is set to be developed, tested, and built in Detroit.


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 In a bid to stoke an historic industry, Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit has established an R&D center for aerospace engineers and others to design, test, and build aircraft — and to work toward meeting the FAA mandate that all existing and future commercial, cargo, and general aircraft be GPS-enabled using satellite-based tracking by 2020.

This spring, private and collegiate teams will use existing hangars and available airspace to begin testing small aircraft models over unpopulated areas near the airport. If a design shows promise, the intent is to manufacture the aircraft and related components nearby.

“We have two runways that are available for use at most times of the day, and there are vacant buildings nearby that could be converted into a factory, or we could see new facilities built,” says Jason Watt, airport director. “We really see aviation as an industry that will create jobs in Detroit.”

Detroit City Airport offers Class Delta — or Class D — airspace, a designation that provides for flight tests. A pilot flying an experimental plane would communicate with the control tower in traditional fashion; remotely piloted aircraft can fly up to 2,500 feet above the ground as long as the remote control operator is in radio communication with the control tower.

“Technology advances and lower costs for basic aircraft components and systems are increasing R&D opportunities in aviation,” says Jon Rimanelli, chairman of Detroit Aircraft Corp., which was founded in 1925 and once included Lockheed Martin as a division. Detroit Aircraft closed following the Great Depression. Rimanelli re-chartered the company in 2011 to pursue new aerospace opportunites.
In February, the U.S. Congress passed a $63-billion bill to help fund research and development of GPS-enabled planes and support systems, often referred to as Next Generation, or NextGen. The legislation, which awaits President Obama’s signature, aims to fund aircraft designs, both manned and unmanned, for multiple uses. 

“When you look at how successful drones have operated in wartime, you begin to see multiple opportunities in civilian airspace for safety, security, and business applications,” says Perry DiClemente, Detroit Aircraft’s vice president of product development. “Sensors and cameras can detect radioactive leaks, oil spills, fires, and accidents. With a drone, the fire department, for example, could determine how large and hot a fire is, and send in the necessary team without calling and waiting for backup.”

To build awareness and add talent, Detroit Aircraft and others led a design challenge last fall among aerospace and engineering students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Wayne State University in Detroit, and Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. Three winning designs (right) were recognized during the MAIN (Motorcity Automotive Industry Night) Event in January, prior to the opening of the North American International Auto Show.

The annual MAIN Event, which has always been focused on the automotive industry, included an aviation component for the first time. “For our students to have the opportunity to work on future aircraft and propulsion systems was extremely beneficial,” says Keith Nagara, director of the transportation design program at Lawrence Tech’s College of Architecture and Design. “The industry will create jobs in Michigan, and we want our students to be employed in those jobs.”

Ella Atkins, associate professor of aerospace engineering at U-M, says students will be flying unmanned model aircraft at Detroit City Airport in the spring. “We can fly the models indoors, but our students really need to see how their aircraft will perform in various weather conditions,” Atkins says. “I can’t tell you how excited I am for our students, because there are few options to fly experimental aircraft in controlled airspace.” db

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