The unmanned aviation vehicles manufactured by Drone Aviation Corp. on Jacksonville’s Southside are not for the casual hobbyist looking to get some video of the beach or backyard activities.
Costing between $50,000 and $350,000 each, the drones at the manufacturing facility are designed specifically for high-end use for military, public safety and industrial applications. In addition to the propeller drones that carry cameras for surveillance and observation, Drone Aviation also manufactures aerostats, small blimps filled with helium that are about 18 feet wide.
Another key difference that sets Drone Aviation apart from the rest of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry is that all their devices are tethered. That means they have a power cable that runs from the ground to the device in the air. The tether carries flight commands, data, video and other information to and from the drone.
The advantage is the tether, which can stretch 200 to 800 feet, can allow the drone to stay in the air for hours, whereas free-flying drones can remain airborne for a maximum of about an hour before they have to land and recharge batteries.
“We’re pushing the safety and reliability buttons,” said Felicia Hess, co-founder of Drone Aviation and chief operating officer. “A lot of the concerns the public has is about spying and safety. That’s where we shine. Our whole message is that this is not something that people should fear. It’s something that’s going to be very useful in many applications. And we can control so many aspects of flight that we can remove a lot of those fears and remove obstacles to flying,” she said.
The company’s website and marketing materials look to recast perceptions of drones and assure users by proclaiming that they are “taming altitude.”
The tethered line running to the drones is only offered by five manufacturers, Hess said. Drone Aviation has about 300 customers around the world and expects that to increase soon because of changing regulations.
A critical development last month from the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to work in Drone Aviation’s favor. The FAA loosened commercial drone regulations with the exception of one element: All commercial drones will have to remain in the line of sight of the operator when the new regulations go into effect in August.
That means the tethered drones could be in high demand.
Mike Silverman, director of engineering and development at Drone Aviation, said there’s a feeling at the company that they’re on the cusp of a business breakthrough when the revised FAA regulations for commercial drones take hold in a few weeks.
“I think that today, everyone has a better understanding of what a drone is, there’s a better outlook on it,” said the 25-year-old Silverman. “I do think it’s going to build more momentum. In a company like ours, we’re finding different ways to keep pushing this industry.
“Four or five years ago, there wasn’t tethered drones, now there is,” Silverman said.
BUZZING WITH ACTIVITY
Drone Aviation’s headquarters just north of University of North Florida is a center of increased activity these days.
The company has 15 employees ranging from engineering designers to engineering assembly personnel in a 5,500-square-foot manufacturing facility on Central Parkway.
The employees include many recruits from the UNF engineering program, where part-time workers make about $12 an hour, to full-time personnel who are earning about $60,000 a year at Drone Aviation.
Drone Aviation was founded in 2014 after a series of mergers with a company called Lighter Than Air Systems, which focused solely on the blimp-like devices at the time. Drone Aviation still builds those aerostats using a polyurethane material that is assembled at the headquarters.
Those aerostats, which are really for heavy-duty use, are highly prized by multiple military operations, Hess said, because they can literally fold up and be stuffed into a small transport satchel about 4 feet long.
Then they are simply unfolded and inflated with helium, attached to the tether and an instant observation device is available. The aerostats also have a longer tether that can stretch up to 1,500 feet.
The company generated about $400,000 in revenue for aerostat sales last year.
The drones with their helicopter-like propellers are the speedier and more nimble devices.
Drone Aviation assembles custom drones with specific modifications for each customer.
Silverman said Drone Aviation will continue to focus primarily on commercial drone use. There is some consideration for hobbyist markets, but that won’t happen for a long time.
“This has been a really an exciting field. It’s been a blast to see a concept come from a napkin drawing and turning it into a final product,” Silverman said.
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098