Vigilant Aerospace Systems recently gave a one-hour seminar at the inaugural meeting of the DronePort Network in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
The first part of the seminar featured case studies of successful drone ports that have overcome four common obstacles in launching a drone port or drone program in the U.S.
In this 12-minute video presentation, we address the obstacles and the proven solutions to launching a successful drone program. Watch the video:
From the video:
This is Kraettli Epperson. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Vigilant Aerospace. We’re going to talk about what some common obstacles are to launching dronports and programs and some specific examples of droneports that are overcoming those obstacles today.
I’m going to give you all some practical examples of programs that have gotten off of the ground.
We’re in a great place to be able to look at an analyze programs, because this is obviously brand new. There are a lot of things that are going on and developing with droneports, so we can learn lessons really quickly and apply them.
Four Common Obstacles to Launching a Droneport
First I’m going to talk about funding sources. That’s job number one. You’ve got to get off of the ground somehow. Finding innovative and creative ways to get the resources. It’s been really interesting researching this.
Regulatory permissions is a big one, obviously. Lack of commercial activity around or expected for your droneport. How do you make sure you have enough activity and interest?
Finally, lack of qualified companies and pilots that need to use the droneport. How to make sure you can work on that problem before you launch.
I’m going to start with some examples. Let me clarify, this presentation in particular is focused on commercial droneports. That is, droneports that are going to be serving commercial flights. So that’s our definition for the purpose of this presentation.
Obviously, there are a lot of academic and research droneports that exist. Look at the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test site system that the FAA put together and popularized. Those exist, and they are great. In fact, those are leveraged and utilized by commercial droneports. Also, they’re often cooperating with military organizations, whether it’s a base or whether it’s something else.
Grand Sky (North Dakota)
One example, you all may have heard of is Grand Sky.
In this case, the droneport is cooperating with Grand Forks Air Force Base. They have a synergistic relationship. But, it is a commercial droneport that exists to serve private industry.
They are private equity funded through Grand Sky Development, Inc.
Grand Sky is primarily focused on testing. They’ve pre-leased to tenants for all around testing of new UAS aircraft technology. Usually that’s serving the Department of Defense (DOD), but they are really trying to get out to a larger space. The majority is focused on private leases with commercial activity.
In regards to funding sources, they did some really interesting things. All of you, especially the economic developers, will find this interesting. So, the Air Force has a special program where they can take a portion of the unused space and they can lease it. They were able to lease it to the local county and Grand Sky Development was able to come in and then take that lease. They have a 50-year lease on the land.
It’s really, really interesting what they’ve done here. Before Grand Sky took on the lease, they closed a $10MM dollar lease deal with Northrop Grumman to test new aircraft before even starting to build the droneport.
Grand Sky put together a series of deals that they’ve worked from day one. That’s one of those interesting and innovative things that they’ve done.
Obviously, they’ve worked very closely with US Air Force because they are adjacent to the base. They have access to of some of the base facilities. Also, they work very closely with their congressional delegation, which helps a lot.
They pre-leased and had anchor tenants when they started. The result of that is that they’ve had additional tenants through Northrop Grumman. General Atomics came in as a second tenant and they’ve have more tenants come in the second year. We see that as a pattern across other droneports as well. Once they get an anchor tenant, they’re going to be able to collect multiple, additional tenants, just like a mall.
Another thing they did that helped is that they got a lot of national publicity. This example is probably the earliest and I start with this because it is one of the most successful.
Tom Sowyer is the developer behind Grand Sky Development Inc. He is a well-known real-estate developer. Tom came into this and learned about all of the programs to create this droneport.
I really looked at Grand Sky particularly for great examples of how to begin the process and how to go about finding qualified companies and pilots. Grand Sky is leaning on the military, obviously, and they’re leaning on Northrop Grumman. That helps them a lot. Not everybody has all of the resources and connections that Grand Sky had from the start. I’m very aware of that as I talk about this particular droneport.
Some of the things that Grand Sky did well with the military, in particular the Air Force, was to gain access to the airports and facilities that have been under-utilitized, which allowed them the ability to transfer some of those to resources private use and private leases to pass those resources down the line to companies that are going to be able to use that for commercial purposes. It’s a very creative, very interesting thing. It can be done almost anywhere.
There are programs like this all over the US that can be used very effectively as you’ll see in the following droneport examples, which have similar sorts setups and resources.
Cape May County Industrial Airpark (New Jersey)
Another one that we’re going to look at his Cape May County Industrial Airpark and UAS Incubator in New Jersey.
There are several interesting things about Cape May County Airpark. They obtained an early, public use Certificate of Authority. The COA is an FAA certificate to allow unmanned aircraft under specific conditions for a public purpose.
You have this dual system that the FAA runs with COAs and waivers. COA’s are special permissions to fly unmanned aircraft. Waivers are for the private sector. To fly an unmanned aircraft and you can get a waiver of specific rules to be able to advanced flight operations like fly at night, fly over people, fly beyond visual line-of-sight, or fly with extended visual line-of-sight – where you have somebody watching when it’s out of sight of the pilot. All of these require an FAA waiver.
But using a COA like Cape May is very creative. This COA was used to do flights to test a concept for a flying cell phone tower. This addressed a really high priority problem in dropped telecommunication lines and is one of the reasons that they were able to get permission to do this. The other thing that is really important about this droneport is that they recently announced on August 28th, that they have attracted a $3MM dollar grant from the Department of Commerce.
Again, this is an example of a droneport doing very innovative things and using under-utilized resources to build out the program. Cape May County is building a 20,000 square foot drone facility where they expect to generate 130 jobs and $1.9MM in private investments.
For funding sources, Cape May was organized and funded by a local economic development authority with help from the county. The droneport plans involved revitalizing an under-utilized county asset, which was the old county airport.
They pre-leased the facility prior to building, so they had standing leases in place before they start construction. This is a really traditional, commercial real-estate practice. A lot of this is not exotic. If you build a mall, you’re going to take a similar approach to attract tenants. You have to get creative to solve funding problems quickly.
They work very closely with the FAA and the telecom industry. As a local economic developer, I think that gave them a lot more heft. It allows them to go around talking about solving an important economic problem. In this case, it’s the ability to set up mobile cell phone towers on a drone to respond to emergencies.
To address a lack of commercial UAS activity, Cape May pre-leased space and launched a county sponsored UAS technology incubator. This immediately takes off a portion of their stakes through local incubator that’s focused on developing UAS technologies. The combination of the incubator and the approved COA helps them to attract tenants.
Cape May also created a lot of national publicity, particularly with their telecom projects. They then leveraged that into a couple of drone companies which leased parts of the droneport space. These are high-tech development companies doing a variety of things for drone operators.
You’ll see a lot of similarities between these droneport development projects, even in a totally different places and totally different contexts. No Air Force base nearby Cape May, however they both put together similar sort of resources to launch a droneport.
Droneports Coming in 2019
Here are a few droneports which are currently under construction and are slated to be completed in 2019.
Eldorado Droneport (Nevada)
Another one you may be familiar with is Eldorado Droneport located in Boulder City, Nevada.
Eldorado is organized and funded by Boulder City and Bass 11 – a non-profit organization for workforce development which also has a sister company, Aerodrome, LLC which also focuses on training. So, this has a lot of overlap with the prior model.
The Eldorado Droneport is under construction now and is reportedly fully funded.
Eldorado is focused on UAS research, specialty education training, and job development. They have a 50-acre facility, runway, and a major resource that they’re leveraging is that they are close to a FAA UAS Test Site. So, they’re able to use the COA from the test site as well, providing access to private companies that otherwise might not have a direct path. Grand Sky used access to the Air Force base to attract tenants. Here, they’re using the COA available through the nearby test site as a starting point.
Eldorado Droneport initially outsourced a lot of their operations to Aerodrome, LLC, a tech training company with a proven history of setting up these programs. Eldorado is also cooperating with Ball 11, a job-based non-profit with STEM education and job development training, which is also their anchor tenant and launch partner. The droneport is co-located with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems UAS test site, which leverages the existing relationship. Through this relationship they’re providing onsite training and support, which is a way to then attract other people into the droneport.
They are addressing the issue of “where do you get the pilots and where do you get the operator companies” by building their own. So, they’re training their own pilots and they’re also running an incubator to incubate UAS tech companies.
York County UAS Facility (Virginia)
Another droneport expected to be completed in late 2019 or early 2020 is the UAS facility in York County, Virginia. The York County droneport is organized and funded through a state grant program through Go Virginia. Through that program, they’ve just raised $300K of the total $1.3M total budget needed to build the facility.
The primary focus of the York County facility is on business users. They already have 192 acres and a 241-acre industrial park in which they’re going to be able to fly.
USA Drone Port
The USA Drone Port, a drone program that is in an earlier stage than the aforementioned is located in Hazard, Kentucky. The USA Droneport is organized by the National Unmanned Robotic Research and Development Center, a state organization, along with local counties, colleges, and private partners. The land for the droneport has been donated and they’re focusing on first responder training with the expectation that it will generate economic development for the area. Construction is slated to be compeleted in late 2019.
Salisbury Airport UAS Center of Excellence
Finally, Salisbury UAS Center of Excellence located in Maryland is one of the few of these types of droneports that is co-located with an airport.
Salisbury has multiple areas in which they are already permitted to fly around the airport. This is a major resource they are leveraging as they’ve got pre-authorized areas with miles of range that they can use. It is funded by the Wicomico County Airport Commission and the county. Salisbury has already recruited fifty UAS operators committed and they’re continuing to raise money to get the droneport off of the ground.
That’s little bit of background on droneports that are beginning to solve these four major problems, how they’re doing it and lighting the way for future programs.
There are some obvious patterns here. Setting up their system. Getting an authorization. Getting an anchor tenant, just like you would in a mall, so you can begin to get other tenants to be ready to launch your droneport.
Vigilant Aerospace Systems is a charter sponsor or the DronePort Network. For more information about this seminar and the DronePort Network, read more here: “Droneport Network Holds First Meeting, Discusses Overcoming Common Obstacles to Launching New Programs”