Inside look at Jacksonville's tethered drone builder

By Will Robinson  –  Reporter, Jacksonville Business Journal

The U.S. military uses drones for far more than targeted missile strikes. It also uses them to surveil enemy troops, scout terrain and relay sensitive information. For these capabilities, the military often looks to Jacksonville-based Drone Aviation Holding Corp.

Drone Aviation (OTC: DRNE) manufactures tethered drones and blimp-like aircraft called aerostats. The devices are connected to ground components via a proprietary tether that carries power and communications. Thanks to the tether, the drones have a virtually unlimited flying time, un-hackable line of communication and ability to carry heavy payloads.

Of these advantages, flying time is the most significant, according to Michael Silverman, director of engineering and development.

"That's why we're here," he said, noting that most drones available today have to land and recharge every 20 to 30 minutes.

Furthermore, batteries are heavy, accounting for a significant portion of a drone's payload. With a tether, the drones are connected to a power source on the ground, which frees them to carry heavier, higher resolution cameras. Aerostats, which use helium-filled balloons up to 22 feet wide, can carry cameras and communication equipment in the same payload.

Drone Aviation's devices are soldier-operated and can be towed by military vehicles. Prior to these devices, the military relied on massive aircraft akin to the Goodyear Blimp that were operated by contractors, according to Chief Operating Officer Felicia Hess.

"Our niche has been smaller, tactical, soldier-operated systems," said Hess. "The military is getting away from large, contractor-operated systems."

Tethered drones and aerostats can be operated by a laptop and deployed by just two soldiers. Aerostats are "set them and forget them," said Silverman, noting that they can hover for eight or nine hours between maintenance checks.

Drone Aviation received an $800,000 contract in October for its aerostats. The company has received orders from all branches of the military but has the deepest penetration in the Army, Hess said. Outside of the military, the technology has been used by fire departments, who have use heat signatures to detect where to respond first, as well as SWAT teams.

The company has also launched a commercial kit that provides a tether and power pack that pairs with the best-selling drones of DJI, the No. 1 drone manufacturer. The kit enables commercially available drones to fly indefinitely and comes with a patent-protected tether release, which automatically manages the tension of the tether. The kit costs $12,000.

"Our competitors, though they may look like us, are not doing the same thing," said Hess, noting that other kits are essentially an extension cord on a reel.

Drone Aviation began in St. Augustine in 2009 but soon moved to Jacksonville.

"We weren't getting the engineering talent we wanted south of here," said Hess.

The company employs mechanical, electrical and software engineers and creates everything needed to operate the drones and aerostats except for the payloads, which are supplied by the military. Since moving to Jacksonville, Drone Aviation has frequently recruited from the University of North Florida, Hess said. The company now employs about 20 people in Jacksonville, Washington, D.C. and Miami.

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