More than 100 people got a peek at the future on Thursday when the Gulf Unmanned System Center (GUSC) held an open house.
The new Carrabelle-based firm welcomed visitors in grand style. The activities centered on three drone-manufacturing firms who came to demonstrate their products.
An unmanned system, or drone, is an air, water or land craft that operates remotely without a pilot.
The term drone was coined by the US military. In 1935, the British had developed an early airborne unmanned system, the de Havilland Queen Bee, for use in target practice. American engineers copied the machine and dubbed it the drone, male equivalent of a queen bee.
The day began at the corporate headquarters at 206 St. James Avenue NW where CEO Bruce McCormack greeted his guests and gave an overview of his plans and progress. The facility in downtown Carrabelle, the former Gulf State Community Bank, was purchased in June.
GUSC will provide a venue for commercial manufacturers to test small robot drones, weighing less than 55 pounds, on land, water and air. McCormack said, eventually, the firm would also provide support for manufacture and marketing of unmanned systems.
“Unmanned drones have developed further and faster and will become a major economic influence over the next decade,” he said.
Following the opening presentation, visitors crossed US 98 to witness a demonstration of the VideoRay by David Copenhaven, of IPS NexGen.
A swimming drone for treasure hunting
VideoRay, a swimming drone that can be fitted with sonar, cameras, grabbing devices and cutters, also can drive along the surface of a boat’s hull to inspect it. The device has been used to inspect bridges, underwater cables and pipelines, and could be deployed to search for mines or to seek submerged bodies, vessels, or treasure. Copenhaven said one of the newest and most popular applications is the detection of submerged petroleum.
Video Ray has two vertical thrusters and one horizontal thruster. It is tethered to a 1,000-foot cord, which supplies power to the robot and transmits data back to the control center where it can be viewed or transferred directly to a local network. The buoyancy of both the robot and cable can be adjusted to salt or fresh water and the type of work to be performed. Onboard lamps produce 3600 lumens of light, but with radar, can operate in zero visibility.
VideoRay can lift up to 60 pounds with its thrusters; objects weighing up to 200 pounds can be clamped and manually dragged to the surface using the tether. It can dive to 1,000 feet.
VideoRay is piloted from the surface using a simple set of controls including a joystick. The basic unit sells for about $40,000 or about $80,000 fitted with sonar. Copenhaven said more than 2500 VideoRays are already in use.
After the demonstration of underwater technology, the group, using about 60 vehicles, caravanned to the operations center on John McInnis Road under the watchful eye of sheriff’s deputies and Carrabelle police who joined forces to make sure demonstrations and transport ran smoothly.
The operations center, built to house the failed GreenSteel Homes manufacturing plant, is 64,000 square feet. When McCormack leased the metal structure from the city, he promised to make repairs and upgrades and the building, which had fallen into disrepair, appeared neat with the surrounding landscape mowed; parking lots cleared and everything inside neat and orderly.
GUSC Technology Vice President Larry Harvey welcomed everyone to the operations center. He said, prior to choosing Carrabelle he had toured Florida looking for a site for the drone testing facility. He said the “human capital” in Franklin County was important to his choice along with the tremendous support from government and the community.
The three visiting companies, NexGen, HoverFly and Prioria gave presentations of their products and the future of drone technology.
NexGen presenters said their products are designed to facilitate synergistic operations using a combination of airborne, land based and aquatic robots that can communicate through a central command center. NexGen also manufactures a mobile command center, housed in a trailer.
HoverFly manufactures both tethered and free-flying, aerial drones. CEO Al Ducharme is an electronic engineer. His tethered drones have a 148-foot cord that supplies power and carries data back to central control. They remain below the 150-feet altitude where they would be required to carry lights. A tethered drone also has the advantage of a constant power supply so there is no need to carry fuel and, if the tether breaks, power is lost and the drone will not fly away and be lost. Ducharme said tethered drones could be attached to a tractor or other vehicle for use in precision agriculture or other large area applications.
Tethered vs. untethered drones
At the operations center, he demonstrated the LiveSky drone, a tether aerial unmanned system for surveillance, public safety, agriculture or inspection. It has a control system similar to that described for VideoRay. Ducharme said no training is required to operate LiveSky.
As the crowd watched, he launched it to hover first at five feet; then 10 and then up to the full length of a 40-foot tether. The rotary-wing drone appeared stable as it hovered. Then, without warning, it dipped in the direction of the operations center. Ducharme was able to stop its descent and stabilize it. He said that he was having trouble with the unit’s built-in GPS receiver, possibly due to sunspot activity. Again, without warning, the drone suddenly dipped away from the operations center and towards a wetland. The motion was so violent, the tether snapped and the engine shut down. Employees of GUSC quickly retrieved the fallen drone, which suffered only minor cosmetic damage.
“That’s what we are here to do, test drones and perfect the technology,” McCormack said, later. Ducharme said the LiveSky unit is a prototype of a design that is ready for commercial production.
Bryan Franker said his company, Prioria, specializes in both rotary and fixed wing aircraft that operate without a tether. Prioria’s drones would be deployed in surveillance, emergency management, search and rescue, wildfire control and hazardous material monitoring, mapping, utility and railroad inspection and land management.
He brought along a number of designs including the Maveric, an untethered aerial drone that weighs less than three pounds and folds into a case the size of a mailing tube. He said about 1,500 of the units are in use worldwide. The Maveric, designed to be carried by a soldier or other operator, unfolds automatically when withdrawn from the case and is literally thrown into flight. It is battery operated and has a range of six to nine miles.
Training standards under consideration
Everyone agreed one of the biggest problems facing manufacturers of free-flying aerial drones is what kind of training should be required for operators. The fear is a drone could collide with a manned aircraft. Frank Woodward of NexGen said there have been many near misses.
In the US, free-flying drones may only be operated by public safety organizations or universities. Operators must obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) specifying where, when and how the drone may be used. A COA normally takes 90 to 120 days to secure.
What training should be required to operate a free-flying drone commercially is a gray area. Woodward said most people operating them now have military training, and that when the FAA specifies training guidelines, it is likely some operators, especially those using larger unmanned aircraft, will need a pilot’s license.
Ducharme said training of operators for public safety agencies can take one or two years. “It’s a deal killer,” he said.
NexGen’s Copenhaven said industry leaders are working with the FAA to develop training guidelines that are reasonable but keep everyone safe.
Operators of tethered flying drones are not required to have any training, because these are not legally considered to be aircraft.
Ducharme said the huge GUSC operations center could be a valuable asset for developing untethered aerial drones and training operators because the craft could legally be flown within the structure.
Visitors to GUSC seemed pleased by Carrabelle’s newest business. “I am impressed and very excited,” said City Commissioner Charlotte Schneider. “I’m looking forward to this creating even more jobs. A ninth grader in school now will have an incentive to stay in and study hard.
Commissioner Brenda LaPaz echoed her praise. “The building looks fabulous,” she said. “I am excited about this.”
David Butler, who chairs the city’s Economic Development Council, said “I think it has potential. They are planting seeds here and we are going to put the water on them.”
McCormack said GUSC has fulfilled its promise to the city to employ 10 Franklin County residents full-time.
An organization chart provided to the press shows three GUSC vice presidents: Mark Milliken, business development, Larry Harvey, technology and Maria Peterson, corporate relations. Carrabelle resident Lisa Spooner has been tapped as chief financial officer. In addition, there are 11 positions including an administrative assistant who has not been hired. Clint Ivey heads up sales. Jeff Wren is range operations manager. Jason Millender is facilities manager and Sissy Ivey is human resources director. Gregory Newman is in charge of aerial operations. Camron Brownell is senior range technician and Heather Bishop is educational director. Monty Vogue and Patrick Fleming are both listed as operations facility staff and Jeff Watts is proposed operations facility instructor.
A training room with computer terminals has been installed on the second floor of the headquarters building and all GUSC employees are enrolled in an online course in industrial operations offered by Gulf Coast State College. The group meets for class from 6 to 10 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday. The class is paid for by GUSC and students obtain regular credit hours for the study.
Next, employees will receive six weeks of training in fundamentals of unmanned systems from civil engineer John Watts who will travel to Franklin County. McCormack said, following that course, Sea School of Panama City will offer captain’s training in the GUSC classroom. That course will be opened to the public. At least 10 students are needed. Interested parties should contact Sea School www.seaschool.com