Inside Job: TC company designs drones for dark, confined spaces

Interactive Schmidt:Smith2An energetic young company based in Traverse City is entering the fast-growing field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones.

Interactive Aerial designs and manufactures UAV units specifically built for internal – not outdoor – applications, focusing on inspections for multiple uses.

“Our Legacy One is designed to make a significant impact in the current use of unmanned technology by enabling remote operations in GPS-denied environments,” explained CEO Christian Smith. “Now we’re focused on providing hardware for the oil and gas, chemical and ship hull markets with the intent to diversify in coming years. Our cutting edge technology provides the safest platform and most accurate information possible. We intend to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for inspectors to enter confined spaces.”

So what’s the market for a UAV that flies mostly inside structures rather than outside?

“There are nearly 1.8 million above-ground chemical and oil storage tanks across the U.S.,” said Smith. “These holding tanks are inspected by humans with special regulatory certifications requiring the tank to be taken off line, cleaned out and visually inspected. This is hazardous work, requiring protective gear and life monitoring equipment on standby to ensure crew safety. This costs companies large amounts of time and missed revenues. With Interactive Aerial, the same certified inspection can be conducted remotely in a single day, minimizing risk to inspectors and reducing downtime.”

Love them or hate them, UAVs are here to stay, according to industry reports. An estimated $6.4 billion is spent each year on developing drone technology worldwide, according to a 2014 report by Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense market research firm. That number is expected to nearly double in coming years, bringing the total amount spent on UAVs for both commercial and military use to roughly $11.5 billion annually by 2024.

Within a decade, the total amount spent worldwide on research, development, testing and evaluation of UAV technology will reach $91 billion, Teal analysts predict.

And Interactive Aerial is poised to be part of that action from its location on Aero Park Drive.
In addition to Smith, a licensed commercial pilot who is finishing his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of North Dakota, other key members of the company are Chief Operating Officer Pierce Thomas, Chief Intelligence Officer Justin Bentsen and Chief Technical Officer Christopher Schmidt.

A casual conversation in 2014 where they “tossed around ideas” led to the quartet developing a more formal business plan the following year.

“We were determined to blaze our own path,” said Schmidt, a 2015 graduate of Northwestern Michigan College who is quick to cite NMC’s drone program in supporting the company. “It’s one of only six such programs in the country and the training and education we received there has really provided expertise for the vehicle.”

So the team focused on developing a UAV model that would be used specifically for indoor purposes, rather than the standard commercial uses of real estate or agriculture. Their Legacy One can do anything an outdoor drone can do, but is specifically designed to work inside in dark places, such as ship hulls, water towers or petroleum tanks that require routine inspections. Its compact onboard lighting system throws off lumens comparable to an automotive head light.

The Legacy One measures roughly 27 inches wide by 21 inches deep and 7.5 inches tall and weighs about 7 pounds. It integrates custom technology and specially designed software with a modular design, allowing for ease of maintenance and serviceability. The unit has a maximum flight time of about 20 minutes and carries a high resolution camera that can be pitched 180 degrees, allowing for an unobstructed view from floor to ceiling.

Another aspect that makes Interactive Aerial different from other drone manufacturers is that it will lease its units to clients, rather than selling them. “To our knowledge we’re the only manufacturer that will focus on leasing the model to clients,” said Smith. “We want to have a long-term relationship with our customers.”

By leasing its units – for either a month, a year or longer – Interactive Aerial will work closely with clients, offering training, along with technical and software upgrades over the term of the lease. They already have customers lined up for when production of the Legacy One ramps up in another month or so.

Each Legacy One will bear a custom sticker noting that it’s a Michigan-made product. Grand Traverse Tool and Die does the machining for the unit. “If you can see silver (on the UAV) it’s made by GT Tool and Die,” said Smith. Other components are made downstate.

All four of the company’s officers have a strong entrepreneurial streak that keeps them working long hours to get Interactive Aerial off the ground.

“We all love what we do,” said Smith with a laugh. “That leads to some weird hours at the office, but we love it.”