Wings of Change

Lockheed Martin and Detroit Aircraft renew historic partnership.

When Lockheed Martin — a global provider of aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technologies — in May named Detroit Aircraft Corp. as its U.S. manufacturer, distributor, and service provider for the Indago Unmanned Aerial System, it marked the renewal of a historic partnership that predated the development of the modern aviation industry.

Starting in 1922, Detroit Aircraft Corp., then known as Aircraft Development Corp., served as a holding company for several emerging aviation manufacturers including Ryan Aircraft (famous for building Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis), Eastman Aircraft, Gliders Inc., and Lockheed-Vega Aircraft Co. The board of directors, which included Edsel Ford, the only child of Henry and Clara Ford, as well as aviation pioneers William Stout and William Mayo, proved to a skeptical public that safe and reliable airline passenger and cargo service was possible.

By 1932, Detroit Aircraft, which three years earlier had acquired an 87-percent interest in Lockheed-Vega, was bankrupt — a victim of the Great Depression. Lockheed-Vega also had ceased operations at that time, but in a matter of days a group of investors injected $40,000 and re-formed what today is one of the largest defense companies in the world (Lockheed-Vega merged in 1995 with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin, which recorded net sales of $45.4 billion in 2013).

Today, the partnership between Detroit Aircraft and Lockheed Martin has been revived. Jon Rimanelli (pictured above), principal and CEO of Nextronix Inc. — which, in partnership with Saturn Electronics Corp. in Romulus and Firstronic in Grand Rapids, fabricates and assembles circuit boards for the automotive, aviation, defense, and medical industries — re-formed Detroit Aircraft Corp. in 2011 with the goal of producing small unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

After developing an array of light unmanned aircraft powered by small, electric motors, Detroit Aircraft entered into an agreement with Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin earlier this year to deploy the Indago VTOL Quad Rotor to begin addressing first responder and public utility applications such as search-and-rescue operations, disaster relief, and other surveillance missions.

Under the partnership, Detroit Aircraft will serve as the primary full-service authorized distributor and service provider for the Indago vehicle and its technology platform. In addition to supporting first responders such as fire and police departments, the Indago VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft is targeted at industry sectors including energy, environmental, rail, oil and gas, agricultural, and construction.

With its hand-held ground station, or controller, the Indago unit offers mobile, real-time information and data reconnaissance capabilities. The compact aircraft, priced from $25,900 to $49,900, has a range of up to five kilometers when operated using the controller, or more than 10 kilometers using directional communications devices.

Offering around 45 minutes of flight time (a rechargeable battery can be swapped out in less than 10 seconds), the Indago features hover and perch capabilities, flies in all weather conditions, achieves speeds of up to 35 mph, and provides a user-friendly, touch screen map interface and full waypoint navigation via a wireless hand controller.

With various options, the Indago unit can provide multispectral imaging capabilities for farmers, 360-degree panning capability to aid in area surveillance, chemical detection, aerial inspection, and remote imaging. At the heart of the Indago VTOL is the Kestrel autopilot system, which uses fail-safe algorithms to increase safety throughout a mission. It has already achieved thousands of successful flight hours.

“Anchored by years of research, development, and testing led by the Lockheed Martin team, we are using our expertise in the UAV market to promote the Indago VTOL platform to deliver affordable and effective products to end users and partners,” says Rimanelli, chairman and CEO of Detroit Aircraft. “The Indago will not only increase safety for first responders and the general public; it also supports a range of missions and life-saving scenarios.”

As the Federal Aviation Administration sets new rules for UAV applications, Detroit Aircraft is working with the Detroit Fire Department to establish a Detroit Fire and EMS First Response Training Academy at the Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit.

“We offer one of the only UAVs in the commercial sector that is equipped with military-grade hardware,” Rimanelli says. “The industry has a great deal of growth potential, and we intend to dominate the market.” db