Star Wars in Our Own Backyard

Aetos Group Inc. is developing alternative

uses for drones in anticipation of changing

FAA regulations.

Drones aren't just for the military anymore. The Traverse City-based Aetos Group Inc. is developing new commercial applications that benefit from aerial imaging in anticipation of changing Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) regulations.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be used in the surveillance of buildings, plants, power lines, and agricultural land, jobs that either are done by humans or not done at all.

We spoke with Aetos Group's president Bill Donberg, who is also a Northwestern Michigan College aviation instructor and a retired Dow Chemical executive. Donberg is confident that the company, formed two years ago, is in the right place at the right time.

The public just seems to hear about military uses of drones. What is going on with this industry?

There are so many practical applications for using UAVs and those will only increase as their use gets more common and people begin to understand the potential.

In our northern Michigan agricultural region, farmers could use UAVs to find out what fields need fertilizer and which areas have enough or too much moisture. They can determine crop ripeness or infestations.

The elevated view we get with a UAV can improve the quality of inspections while reducing the risks associated with current methods employed in the petrochemical, oil and gas and power industries.

Currently, these inspections are being done with a manned helicopter or airplane, or a guy on a ladder or in a harness or in a bucket truck. And many times inspections aren't being done at all!

Law enforcement agencies are beginning to evaluate the use of UAVs for accident and crime scene investigations or searching for lost people The inspections can include video or still photographs using optical or infrared cameras.

UAVs carrying sensor equipment could be used to measure air quality or toxic contaminants. The ideas go on and on.

What is the holdup on using UAVs in these ways?

The FAA is in the process of developing regulations to govern the safe use of this technology. Separation of all aircraft manned and unmanned is a primary concern and technology is being developed and tested to deal with that.

Privacy issues have surfaced as well. Legislators are evaluating current privacy regulations to ensure that the new dimensions this technology brings do not infringe on privacy rights.

Both issues will be resolved in a matter of time.

In the meantime, the FAA is allowing restricted use in defined areas for developmental purposes. Aetos is taking advantage of that and will be prepared when the regulations are in place.

Congress has directed the FAA to have these regulations in place by 2015. This will occur in steps and certain applications will be permitted sooner than that.

How will Aetos Group make money?

There are dozens and dozens of such practical applications for this technology by private industry that we cannot even begin to address it all. We have to choose the applications we are going to focus on in the next couple of years.

We have a thorough understanding of the technology and how to best use it. We have a handle on the state and flux of the regulatory piece of this business and what impact any of it will have.

The companies that will implement this technology instead of the old methods of doing aerial inspections don't have the time or inclination to deal with all of these facets of the industry. They just want access to the images and sensor data that they can use to make timely decisions regarding their business. And we can do that for them. And, we can deliver it with higher quality, more timely and in a much safer manner.

Then we have a wonderfully synergistic relationship with Northwestern Michigan College. NMC is currently training students for jobs in the industry and it is not just pilots.

Other jobs include payload operators, software engineers, maintenance technicians and designers as well as people to help manage the business side.

Aetos will be able to provide NMC with a window to the needs of the industry and, in return, benefit from a trained, quality workforce. The potential in terms of job creation for the industry and NMC graduates and interns here is immense.

We are very excited about what Aetos can bring to the industry and the Traverse City region.

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