Wichita may be the Air Capital, but it has only the barest beginning of an industry to build drones.
Among those who want to pioneer the unmanned aircraft systems business here is John Martens, a 25-year-old Sedgwick County firefighter with a strong interest in technology.
Martens has a company, Nmotion UAS, a product and an identified need for that product.
Martens has built several small drones with commercially available parts, as well as his own parts and adaptions. He also will supply training and other support.
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He built them in his basement, garage and home office. So far, he has sunk $10,000 to $20,000 of his own money in the business.
His target market is emergency services and public safety agencies, such as police and fire departments, sheriff’s departments, and groups that handle hazardous material spills, manhunts, active shootings, riots, accidents and floods. His product can carry thermal cameras, infrared cameras, even night vision cameras for real-time viewing.
He said he understands the need in his selected markets because he is a professional firefighter.
Launching a small drone could help a scene commander quickly evaluate what’s going on, where the danger is and how best to deploy personnel, Martens said. In one small example, he said, county firefighters are called to countless grass fires during the year. Upon arriving, some firefighters are dispatched to drive around and see how far the fire has spread and what kind of vegetation and material is nearby.
“If it’s green corn, that would never catch, but if it’s wheat stalks, that will go up quickly,” he said.
It takes time. A drone, flying at 30 mph at 150 feet in the air, could reconnoiter the area in a few minutes.
A drone could also improve safety, he said. If police were chasing a suspect through a neighborhood, a drone could be launched to follow a fleeing suspect far more quickly than a police helicopter, he said.
Everyone seems to understand just how useful drones would be, but the legality of their use is a huge issue. The big problem for everyone trying to get into the commercial drone business is the Federal Aviation Administration.
It hasn’t developed rules for commercial drone use, so it effectively prohibits virtually all such use.
To date, the FAA has generally approved small drones as hobby craft flying below 400 feet. But it has banned the use of drones for commercial use, issuing cease and desist orders, as it struggles to figure out how to balance demand with safety concerns.
However, the FAA has created a provision to allow government agencies to use drones if they get a certificate of authorization. Martens said that is his opening. He has some expertise in how to fill out these certificates of authorization and will provide that to any agency that purchases his product. The cost ranges between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the amount of equipment and services attached to the sale.
The FAA says it’s close to issuing new rules for small drones. It was supposed to have a final set of rules in August and now says it likely will issue a preliminary proposal for rules for small drones around Christmas. It would take months more for the comment period and the issuing of final rules.
There are other Kansas companies that, like NMotion UAS, are trying to get an early start on the drone boom. AgEagle, based in Neodesha, makes a fixed-wing drone for agricultural use, said owner Bret Chilcott.
He said he had sales of $1 million in his first six months, between January and June. And it’s just accelerating, Chilcott said.
He said he got the understanding from the FAA that his farmer customers could fly the drone over their own fields and this would be considered a hobby use, which is allowed. However, since then, he said, the FAA has said things which have clouded that.
“Now, it’s really unclear who can or can’t do it, now,” Chilcott said. “A lot of our customers are, you might call them cowboys, who value the product so highly that they typically will figure out a way to use them.”
Chilcott said he eagerly awaits some clarity from the FAA.
Tom Aldag, director of research and development for the National Institute of Aviation Research, said the pressure is building on the FAA because the technology is there and the demand is huge.
“It is happening, and it’s going to happen,” he said of drone development and use “… It’s outrunning the regulators.”
Martens said he sees strong potential demand for his product from local agencies, although there isn’t much talk about it at the moment.
“By the first quarter, I see no reason we shouldn’t be making sales,” he said.
Martens is starting up a group interested in drones and the drone business. The first meeting will be 7 p.m. on Nov. 20 at the Pumphouse, 825 E. Second St., in Old Town.