How Jacksonville companies are helping the drone industry take off

How Jacksonville companies are helping the drone industry take off

Image: Jared Victory of Aviation Systems Engineering Company operates one of the firm’s drones.
Photographer: James Crichlow
Oct 23, 2015, 1:00pm EDT
Jensen Werley Reporter Jacksonville Business Journal

When Jameson Rice, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who works in drone policy, sees the name of a Jacksonville company slide across his desk, he said he can’t help but get excited.

“I feel a kinship for them,” said Rice, who worked at the Jacksonville office of Holland & Knight LLP before moving to D.C. “It’s exciting to see their work. These companies are demonstrating Jacksonville’s role in drones.”

Rice, whose background is in transportation law, sits on Holland & Knight’s drone practice team, which helps clients stay in compliance with the rapidly evolving public policy surrounding drones.

“It’s a brand new area of law,” Rice said. “And it’s a little more fun to talk about at cocktail parties.”

Some of those early adopters are local.

Jacksonville companies such as Drone Aviation Holding Corp., Aeritek, Sky Realty and ASEC are leveraging Jacksonville’s universities and its military background to collaborate with the Federal Aviation Administration, helping create business-friendly regulations and putting Jacksonville in the spotlight for drone innovation.

While the drone business is growing nationally, these companies are in the vanguard of the industry, with their input having the possibility of shaping the way the technology is used and regulated.

. . .
Part of Jacksonville’s success in the drone business comes from its foundation: a strong presence of engineers and veterans with military training and precision.

Companies like Drone Aviation, which manufactures drones that are tethered using a smart cable, hire engineering students from the University of North Florida and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, giving them training and experience in building some of the country’s first drones. Of its 20 employees, at least 14 were hired from local universities.

ASEC, located across the street from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, taps into Jacksonville’s extensive veteran hiring pool: Of its 40 employees, only two don’t have military service.

“We like to use people who have Navy test pilot experience,” said Brent Klavon, commercial drone manager with ASEC, and himself a 20-year Navy veteran. “We find that they’re a low-risk, high-quality provider.”

ASEC, or Aviation Systems Engineering Co., is a Maryland-based company with four satellite offices — Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Dallas; and Jacksonville, the largest. Its local office is expanding rapidly: It occupies a two-story office building near NAS Jacksonville, and is moving into a leased warehouse space formerly occupied by a church. They call that space, where they test their drones, “the drone dome.”

Klavon has been working at ASEC since 2009, soon after he retired from his career as a Navy pilot. But for him, drones are nothing new.

Following Sept. 11, Klavon was assigned to establish the Navy’s unmanned aircraft systems program. (After more than a decade of testing, the system he was working on, the 737-sized Triton, is actually coming to Jacksonville.)

“I was the first guy to do this,” Klavon said. “I was developing briefs, writing the materials and documents. It’s interesting to see the evolution from concept to reality.”

After retiring, Klavon came to work for ASEC because it fit with his skill set and he was in the company of friends. It was a natural transition.

And because of Jacksonville’s large military presence, Klavon said it made sense for ASEC to have an office on the First Coast. Although the company recently got its commercial flying license, which means it can be hired by other companies, its bread and butter is Department of Defense contracts.

That’s what pays the bills,” Klavon said.

But commercial drone use — where it’s not just for the military, but for civilians — is the next frontier for unmanned systems, he said.

“I liken it to when aviation went from propellers to jet engines,” he said. “This is the next step in the aviation revolution: for drones to be used in commercial flight.”

In addition to DOD contracting, the company builds its own drones. It also does commercial photography, uses mapping software for 3D photography and agricultural mapping, works with first responders to use drones for monitoring fires and creates promotional and safety videos for other companies.

ASEC isn’t the only drone company that’s using its engineers to tap into multiple uses for unmanned air systems.

Drone Aviation has Department of Defense contracts to use its tethered drones for military surveillance or disaster relief. This summer, the company participated in a hostage rescue drill where the Army used one of its drones to gather intelligence.

“The applications are endless,” said Felicia Hess, chief operations officer, who is looking into commercial applications for her products, which includes a partnership with CNN.

“You can put a drone where you can’t get to. There are real life-saving applications.”

. . .
But Jacksonville’s companies are doing more than just furthering their own business — some of them are working toward helping to shape drone policy and further mature the industry.
Both ASEC and Drone Aviation have partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Partnership, a collaboration between Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, along with various universities, industry partners and economic development organizations that work together to research and test unmanned aviation systems.
Right now, Klavon said his company is working with Virginia Tech and the News Coalition — with news outlets like New York Times and Getty Images — on how drones can be used for news gathering.

“If we train reporters how to use this technology, will the FAA allow it?” Klavon said. “We’re trying to help the test site come up with requirements for reporters. We help with testing and then that information is provided to the FAA.”

Drone Aviation is also involved with the Mid-Atlantic Partnership — which is one of six FAA-approved drone test sites — to conduct research on whether drones that are tethered could have different rules from free-flying drones.

That research helps Drone Aviation in getting its Section 333 exemption — the approval it needs to be allowed to do commercial drone flights — because Virginia Tech is a third party that can give an unbiased view of what Drone Aviation is doing and help get FAA approval that the company meets standards.
“It’s the type of organization that can validate what we do,” Hess said. “They’re introducing new safety considerations and see a lot of platforms.”

These companies allow their drones to be used in testing and research by Virginia Tech, which is then reported to the FAA, which then uses that research to establish its regulations. By doing so, the companies are working to influence policy and in turn improve the industry as a whole and help put the city on the map.

“Jacksonville is pushing the future of regulation by these companies informing the FAA of what they’re doing,” Rice said. “Jacksonville businesses are pushing the law forward.”

. . .
Of course, it’s beneficial for these companies to help influence the law: The drone industry is so new, it’s still unclear what regulations should be in place, who has jurisdiction and if the industry should even be regulated at all.

Some commercial drone owners think that members of the public who allow for free flight of drones are putting their businesses in danger by potentially creating dangerous situations, raising privacy concerns or putting drones in a negative light.

Right now, the FAA is the leading regulator, with commercial companies needing to get FAA exemption and file flight plans before they can go up into airspace.

“We have to file more paperwork for a photo job than a pilot does,” said Grant Ward, one of the co-founders of Aeritek.
Despite the regulations, most parties think it will be years before the laws governing drones will be sorted out.

“No country has aviation like the United States,” said Rob Lasky, who works with the FAA. “It’s going to be slow and methodical.”
As recently as Oct. 19, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called together a task force to look into requiring all drone owners to register their unmanned systems.

The task force, made up of more than two dozen representatives, will report its findings in November for a December implementation date. Considering the registration would affect millions of drones, the speedy timeline for the process has some drone companies wondering if it’s even possible to have a national registry, and if it could negatively affect their business. But others said their intention is to cooperate with the FAA as much as possible.

“The company is supportive of FAA efforts to ensure the safe use of the air,” said Michael Glickman, a spokesman for Drone Aviation.

The hoops and hurdles companies have to go through could be worth it for the potential benefits and improvements drones can provide.

“I recognize there are some challenges in regulations, but I think those will be overcome,” Klavon said. “They save time, they save money, and the public safety sector recognizes they can save lives of firefighters or first responders. So I think the regulatory problems and technology challenges will be overcome.”

The applications are widespread and numerous. Drone mapping technology can be used to assess the amount of coal in a rail yard by photographing it and creating a 3D image. Thermal mapping can be used on farms to improve crop growth. A drone can be used in place of a human for bridge inspections, keeping that person out of a potentially dangerous situation.

All of these uses are ones that Jacksonville’s companies are testing, and trying to be at the front of.

“A lot of good can come from these,” Klavon said. “They improve our quality of life.”

Jensen covers logistics, trade manufacturing and defense.