At first glance, drones and cars don’t have a lot in common. But increasingly we could see the two work hand in hand to improve automotive transportation by monitoring traffic flow and assisting law enforcement and first responders via airborne accident information. And drones could also open up entire new ways to move people and cargo.
To explore some of these possibilities (and in preparation for a discussion on drones and cars at the upcoming C3 Connected Car Pavilion in Austin on March 14 during SXSW Interactive), we sat down with Jon Rimanelli, the founder and CEO of Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC) to talk about drones and transportation. And found out that the sky’s the limit.
C3 Report: What is your view of the FAA’s recent announcement on the initial rules governing the usage of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones?
Jon Rimanelli: The FAA did a really good job at making sure that the rules did not overly restrict the commercial use of aerial vehicles. The fact that the FAA does not require a commercial pilot’s license to operate drones is big news; this will likely be the thing that drives industry growth. Instead of investing up to $12,000 for a commercial pilot’s license, including training and certification, a much smaller investment of $500 to $1,000 will enable micro-franchises and small service providers to enter the market quicker and with cost effectiveness. It will be a boon for companies that would not have otherwise had the means to enter the business at all. The main takeaway from these rules and the expanded usage we can expect from UAVs is that drones have the capacity to save lives and help the public in ways that deliver social and economic benefits.
C3: What industries stand to gain from the broader adoptions of UAVs?
Rimanelli: Agriculture. Using UAV technology could save millions or even billions of dollars per year based upon improved precision on where the industry seeds, re-seeds, how they hydrate and fertilize, and how they diagnose crop status. The airborne use of multi-spectral imaging and infrared technology will allow for better, more predictive crop maintenance down to the plant level, while greatly reducing the resources needed to maintain and produce those crops manually on the ground. Real estate will use the technology for aerial filming, mapping, property maintenance updates and possibly to ensure the security of their agents. Again, it is performing tasks that were previously too expensive or labor intensive, plus providing additional value that saves time and money.
C3: How does transportation and mobility benefit from the use of UAVs?
Rimanelli: In addition to monitoring traffic flow and assisting law enforcement, I can see how accident forensics can be performed much more quickly. Beyond that, from a ground vehicle integration standpoint, I see a commercially-viable convergence of the autonomous air vehicle and autonomous ground vehicle, two separate modes of mobility that will come together and evolve.
Envision the reality of lightweight aerial autonomous vehicles, flying cars if you will, capable of carrying up to 3,000 pounds of cargo, people or other payloads to a specified location hundreds of miles away. This would enable an emission-free, airborne Uber of the sky that can transport cargo and people, and I see this happening within five to seven years.
The exciting thing that I see is the development of an aerial platform which is remotely piloted or autonomous, capable of vertical takeoff and transition to linear flight, with multiple payload options, from cargo to emergency medivac to humanitarian supplies to ground vehicles, and which may or may not include passengers.
C3: Drones have been negatively portrayed in the news. How do you handle such publicity?
Rimanelli: The use of the word “drone” has negative connotations in the U.S., as people associate the word with wartime activities and spying. We should change the conversation from “drones” to “HAVs,” Humanitarian Air Vehicles, because these vehicles are improving the lives of people performing jobs that are too dirty or too dangerous. Transmission tower inspection, for example, has required a technician to execute a dangerous climb, the type of work HAVs can perform without posing undue risk.
In addition, Detroit Aircraft is working on a partnership with Lockheed Martin as well as the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association in the deployment of autonomous Humanitarian Access Vehicles, which would be used in West Africa in the fight against the Ebola virus. We are creating a model to use these HAVs to deliver humanitarian aid in the form of medicine, transport vehicles, emergency materials and other payloads. We are still in development on this program but we intend on proving the concept so we can bring the idea to the U.S. and help network the country’s 20,000 airports to transport people and products in similar fashion.
C3: How does DAC’s work in the defense industry help or hinder your intent on changing the conversation on “drones” versus “HAVs?”
Rimanelli: We are not in the business, and never will be in the business, of weaponizing these aerial vehicles. There is enough business potential in the saving and improving of lives rather than the destroying of lives. To that end, the conversation will change as people understand the humanitarian potential of these vehicles through our actions.
C3: Aerial vehicles obviously need a power source. Will power technology evolve as adoption of aerial vehicles expands?
Rimanelli: Battery technology is constantly improving, with power densities and light-weighting being key to the evolution of emission-free HAV’s. We are engaged with a company, LaserMotive, that is helping us engineer an HAV that is powered by laser with the ability to recharge the HAV wirelessly while it is in-flight. Supercapacitors will also enable us to build HAVs with longer flight endurance.
C3: How do you intend on gaining mass acceptance of HAVs in the coming years?
Rimanelli: At DAC we intend to utilize Detroit and Michigan’s skilled labor and automotive industrial base to manufacture HAV’s that are safe, reliable and accessible to the mass market. DAC will accelerate the next generation of air mobility using mass production automotive manufacturing techniques rather than traditional low-volume techniques traditionally used aviation, which builds only a handful of units at a time. Today’s HAVs represent the foundation for a highly automated air transportation system to network the 20,000 airports in the United States.
That’s my vision for Detroit Aircraft: a highly automated airborne Internet of Things that consist of a broad variety of mission-driven vehicle platforms and sensors to mobilize people and cargo in the next five years. By 2025, average middle-class Americans will be able access private air transportation at a price they can afford. I like to think of it as equality and air mobility.