Ohio company leading work on unmanned aircraft
DAYTON, Ohio — An industry report this week predicted that unmanned aircraft systems will create more than 2,700 new Ohio jobs by 2025, but for one Springfield company, unmanned aircraft already make up 20 percent of the bottom line.
“I had intended to get into it. I didn’t intend to get into it so soon,” said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech GeoSpatial, which is located inside a renovated, 17,000-square-foot hangar at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.
While the 4-year-old company currently employs nearly 30 people, it’s on the ground floor of what promises to be something very big — Tuesday’s report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated that commercial and civil UAS will have a $2.1 billion economic impact on Ohio within a decade of their 2015 integration into national airspace.
Along with SAIC, a Fortune 500 defense company that has a location at the Nextedge technology park on East National Road, SelectTech GeoSpatial is among the first companies in Springfield to be directly involved in the development of unmanned aircraft.
“They embody that type of company we imagine investing in the community,” said Tom Franzen, Springfield assistant city manager and director of economic development.
Just how many companies like SelectTech end up investing in Springfield remains to be seen.
The Dayton-Springfield region is soon to be in the running to host one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s six national test sites for unmanned aircraft. The creation of the sites is required before the FAA allows UAS into manned airspace, but also will help determine where the jobs flow, the report stated.
“Are we going to be a player or are we going to be a leader?” Beafore asked. “That’s the difference.”
Even without the airspace — the FAA currently prohibits the flying of unmanned aircraft except with a special certificate of authorization — UAS are the fastest-growing segment of SelectTech GeoSpatial’s business.
Established in Springfield in 2009 as a commercial manufacturing site for Centerville-based SelectTech Services Corp., SelectTech GeoSpatial has produced UAS components for the Air Force Research Laboratory. But the company also is aiming to manufacture a commercial UAS that’s already being marketed to law enforcement, fire departments and agricultural producers.
Developed and soon to be sold by UTC Aerospace Systems — a unit of the corporation that also makes the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter and Pratt & Whitney jet engines — the three-pound craft called Vireo can be launched by hand and stay airborne for an hour, equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors for either day or night use.
SelectTech GeoSpatial is on board to produce Vireo’s power train and control circuitry, and is close to a deal that would allow them to make the airframe as well for UTC, Beafore said.
“They see us as a one-stop shop,” he said.
The Vireo airframe is made of Kevlar, with components including the camera bay, battery bay and battery cover produced with a 3-D printer.
“You could play hell trying to break these things,” Beafore said.
In 3-D printing, plastics are layered on top of each other to create a physical object from a digital model.
SelectTech made news in 2011 when it created a five-pound UAS made entirely of ABS plastic on its 3-D printer, then flew it at the local airport under flight rules that govern model airplanes.
Beafore merely wanted to prove it could be done.
A saying written on a marker board in the SelectTech office reads, “To do the impossible, you must first believe.”
SelectTech has so far produced at least 10 Vireo prototypes, Beafore said, and three complete alpha prototypes have been shipped to customers.
For its part, UTC hasn’t made any big public announcements yet regarding either the Vireo or the Optio, the first two models of UAS the company will offer.
“We don’t know how big it’s going to be,” company spokesman Sol Mirelez said of UAS.
According to the new industry report, UAS will one day be put to use in wildfire mapping, disaster management, weather monitoring, oil and gas exploration and freight transport. But, precision agriculture and public safety are expected to be the largest markets — with the farm market 10 times bigger than the public safety market.
Unmanned aircraft will be used on farms for remote sensing, the report stated, to monitor plant health and to locate outbreaks of disease. Precision application by unmanned aircraft could reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on crops, according to the report, and would be cheaper and safer than manned crop dusters.
Call them unmanned aircraft systems or call them unmanned aerial vehicles. Just don’t call them the d word.
“Don’t use the word drone. Ever,” Beafore said. “A drone is a dumb aircraft towed behind another aircraft for target practice.”
Even the non-UAS work being done by SelectTech adjacent to Springfield-Beckley’s modest terminal has a definite cool factor.
The company produces, among other things, tactical operations centers that are in use by the military.
“They’re designed to operate anywhere on the Earth,” Beafore said of the walk-in boxes that generate their own electricity and heat, and could be used as a UAS ground station or mobile data center.
The company also makes an electronic enclosure that would allow for high-speed Internet on an aircraft.
“We expect that to be our next new growth market,” Beafore said.
But it’s the growing amount of work on unmanned aircraft that’s as exciting as it is misunderstood.
Talk of so-called drones is everywhere, from their use by the CIA and U.S. military to track and kill militants in the Middle East to their theoretical future use on home soil.
In the midst of this national dialogue, the FAA is trying to integrate commercial UAS into manned airspace, having already delayed the process last fall out of concerns for privacy and safety.
“I do believe we’re going to see the benefits of having robotic aircraft performing jobs we can’t do,” Beafore said.
Unmanned aircraft are feared today, he said, just as automobiles and manned planes were all feared at first.
“People always fear change,” he said. “In the end, we find that change is what makes us a great country.”
“If we don’t move forward,” he added, “we’re going to be beat by everyone else.”