Detroit Aircraft Takes Flight With Lockheed Deal, Airport Renovation

8/19/14Follow @XconomyDET

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, … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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