Detroit Aircraft Takes Flight With Lockheed Deal, Airport Renovation

In 2007, Jon Rimanelli began researching Detroit’s history in the aviation industry as part of a proposal to convince organizers of the Red Bull Air Races to pick the Motor City as the host. The bid was successful and resulted in Red Bull race planes zipping up and down the Detroit River for the next three summers. But Rimanelli’s research also led to something bigger: the decision to launch his own aviation startup.

“I found out there was a huge aviation sector in Detroit in the 1920s,” Rimanelli says. “Detroit Aircraft was once the biggest [airplane manufacturer] in the world—it owned Lockheed and it owned Ryan Aircraft, which built the Spirit of St. Louis. Imagine if those companies had survived the Great Depression. Imagine having the automotive and aviation capitals in one place.”

After Red Bull hosted its last race in Detroit in 2010, Rimanelli was inspired to reach out to Bruce Holmes, who leads NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation Systems Initiative to produce remotely piloted unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to transport passengers and freight. Rimanelli knew that Coleman A. Young International Airport (commonly known as Detroit City Airport), located in one of the more desolate parts of east Detroit, was underutilized and ripe for development. And he couldn’t shake the idea of reviving Detroit Aircraft.

So, in 2011, Rimanelli, who already owned an electronics company called Nextronix, decided to officially revive Detroit Aircraft Corporation to take advantage of the region’s manufacturing and engineering talent and produce unmanned aircraft systems. He worked with Holmes and others to design a prototype passenger plane as word trickled out that there was a guy in Detroit pushing to restore the city as a center for cutting-edge aviation technology.

“I decided to take the plunge and spent a few months finding out what a huge investment it would be to build a mass-produced, highly automated mass transit system for aircraft,” Rimanelli recalls. “The people here who could afford to invest were risk averse, so there wasn’t a huge appetite for that sort of investment.”

After being “brushed off” by the administration of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Rimanelli says he began lobbying state government officials in 2012 about establishing City Airport as a test site for UASs in Michigan. He eventually joined forces with a group in Alpena that also wanted to test UAVs in Michigan. They formed the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium to establish the framework needed to nominate Michigan as a candidate for one of six national test sites for integrating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into the national airspace being planned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the meantime, Rimanelli started buying fabrication equipment needed to build UAVs. Ultimately, Michigan failed in its quest to host a UAV test site, but that didn’t stop Rimanelli’s pursuit of making Detroit a center of UAV development, especially since the whole application process had gone to great lengths to promote Michigan and its manufacturing and aviation prowess to the global aerospace industry. “The consortium with Alpena fell by the wayside, but we continued [as an aviation startup],” Rimanelli says. “We had to get creative to stay alive.”

Back in 2011, before the failed bid to establish Michigan as a UAV test site, Rimanelli got a call from city officials who wanted to know if drones could be used to track a serial rapist who had been terrorizing Detroit. Rimanelli reached out to Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense conglomerate based in Bethesda, MD, to see if it had a product that might fit the bill. Lockheed didn’t, so Rimanelli and Detroit Aircraft began researching drones on their own. During this process, Rimanelli formally met with Lockheed Martin, and things went so well that it eventually led to a formal partnership announced in May to address the first responder and public utility markets.

Detroit Aircraft was also chosen by Lockheed Martin to be its U.S. distributor, manufacturer, and service provider of the new Indago UAV, a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicle targeted for use in law enforcement, agriculture, energy, and rail applications. Lockheed has told Rimanelli that if his company does a good job with the Indago, more work will be forthcoming in the future. He says he plans to use all Michigan suppliers to build the parts, some of which are made using a 3-D printer.

Detroit Aircraft also has a deal with the city to further develop City Airport into its headquarters. Construction started a few weeks ago on renovating the 19,000-square-foot main terminal—which stopped commercial passenger flights in 2000 but still serves private and cargo planes—into an office facility, complete with manufacturing lines and a machining shop in the basement where baggage claim used to be.

Rimanelli, who is also a pilot, has been involved in trying to improve the airport for a long time. In 2007, City Airport pilots snuck Channel 7 news cameras into the facility because they were upset about its lack of maintenance, grounds choked with overgrown foliage, and exorbitant fuel prices. They were also concerned there was widespread financial mismanagement. “This place was a hell hole,” he explains.

A Kilpatrick crony named Delbert Brown was in charge of the place at the time, and he apparently felt the airport would serve the people of Detroit better as a recreational facility. So he installed state-of-the-art tennis courts, a miniature golf course, and archery equipment in some of the hangars, much to the consternation of pilots who didn’t understand why an airport should suddenly become a rec center. Brown resigned in 2010 after a city council audit showed gross financial mismanagement.

Rimanelli says the new airport director, Jason Watt, is “really good,” and that the two are working hard to develop new business opportunities there. Rimanelli recently returned from a trip to meet with farmers in Tanzania who are interested in using the Indago to improve crop yields, and he’s very optimistic about his company’s opportunities. UAVs, he says, are expected to be an $87 billion market globally by the end of the decade.

“Eighty percent of the global opportunity is in precision agriculture,” he says. “We scan their fields in high-def, and then we stitch the images together and it spits out a report for the farmer. We want to sell data collection as well as the vehicle.”

Some of the development of the UAV market relies on the FAA issuing a set of rules for commercial vehicles. But Rimanelli sees that as an advantage for Detroit Aircraft: “What irks the FAA are hobbyists not using professional-grade manufacturing, to make sure they don’t crash or head into space. The FAA will mandate certification of aircraft, which is a very expensive process that will knock out a lot of competition. Our partner, Lockheed, is someone who can afford that process.”

In addition to agriculture, Detroit Aircraft remains focused on law enforcement. The company has already formed a partnership with the Detroit Fire Department to test the Indago’s ability to assist in fire-fighting. As soon as he gets government approval, Rimanelli wants to deploy the Indago for hot spot detection and other services.

The Indago, which has a length and wingspan of 32 inches when deployed, is capable of real-time information and data reconnaissance. It has a range of up to five kilometers when it’s operated by controller (or more than 10 kilometers when using directional communication devices) and can fly for approximately 45 minutes on a rechargeable battery. It can also be folded up into a small, handheld case about a foot long, which Rimanelli thinks makes it ideal for busy police and fire departments.

Detroit Aircraft is also starting to make a name for itself in the local startup scene. It was a finalist in the June pitch competition sponsored by Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour, and Rimanelli hopes to soon establish a first-responder training academy, where UAVs will be part of the curriculum, at City Airport. He says Detroit Aircraft is also currently being “courted” by a huge defense corporation he declines to name to work on UAV-assisted detection of improvised explosive devices.

“It feels really good to get some traction,” he says.

Trending on Xconomy