Detroit Aircraft Takes Flight With Lockheed Deal, Airport Renovation

8/19/14Follow @XconomyDET

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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 … 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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