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Detroit Is Already a City of Drones

Detroit Aircraft founder John Rimanelli

Detroit Aircraft founder John Rimanelli

Marc Andreessen—cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms—recently penned an article for Politico entitled “Turn Detroit into Drone Valley.”

In short, the focus of the article centered around the desire to develop innovation clusters in cities across the globe. It’s a recurrent theme throughout organizations like Techonomy: how to foster a spirit of innovation and embrace technological innovation, all while building upon the legacy strengths of a specific city or region.

Truly, Andreessen’s article was less about Detroit specifically, and more about recognizing the link between innovations in technology and economic growth and opportunity. However, for individuals like Jon Rimanelli—founder of drone manufacturer Detroit Aircraft—it was a reaffirmation of his efforts to make Detroit a global hub for aircraft research and innovation.

Over the past two years, Rimanelli has created an R&D lab on the outskirts of Detroit, striking a deal to refurbish the city’s run-down airport, and turning the 19,000-square-foot main terminal—which ceased commercial flights in 2000—into a modernized research facility, complete with manufacturing lines.

According to Rimanelli, Unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) are expected to be an $87 billion market globally by the end of the decade, and with his company Detroit is well positioned to capitalize on the demand.

“We are setting up distribution globally, and at a staggering pace,” says Rimanelli. “We recently traveled to Africa to discuss applications for drones in precision agriculture and increasing farm crop yields. We’ve received interest from individuals in South America looking for better solutions for infrastructure inspections. There’s strong interest across the board in using the UAVs for threat detection and anti-terrorist efforts. Most recently, a major oil company approached us seeking ways that the technology could address hazardous materials cleanup.”

The surge in demand for UAVs has catapulted sales from $96,000 in 2013 to an estimated $1 million for 2014. A significant portion of these sales come from a joint venture with defense contractor Lockheed Martin—a formal partnership in May set up Detroit Aircraft to distribute, manufacture, and service the Indago UAV, a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle targeted for use in law enforcement, agriculture, energy, and rail applications.

A recent acquisition of A3Electronix, a Livonia, Mich.-based electronics manufacturer, brings the majority of their manufacturing needs in-house, including autopilot systems and engine controllers, and will bring Detroit Aircraft’s employee count up to approximately 15 employees by the end of October.

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