Charleston West Virginia Economic Development

Discussions on Economic and Community Development in West Virginia and the Charleston MSA as well as issues of the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The article below appeared in today's Charleston Daily Mail.

Aircraft maker moves to Charleston

Company creates unmanned drones mostly for military applications

by George Hohmann
Daily Mail Business Editor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A company that makes small, unmanned aircraft is moving from Indiana to the Charleston Area Alliance's business incubator at 1116 Smith St.

Matt Ballard, the Alliance's president and chief executive officer, introduced Jeff Imel, founder of Air Robotics, on Tuesday during a meeting of the Alliance's Board of Directors.

Imel said Charleston was part of his sales territory in the 1990s. "I always said that if I could live anywhere on the planet, it would be West Virginia. And my time came. I do love this state. I feel like I'm at home."

Air Robotics currently has five employees in Muncie, Ind., and will maintain a sales office there. But Imel expects the firm to have 20 employees in Charleston within three years. Air Robotics will build unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, here and will have a sales office here.

"The type of people we will hire have been involved with model aircraft," because building and flying an Air Robotics drone is somewhat similar to building and flying a model plane, Imel said.
Imel said Air Robotics' drone has "a truly hardened airframe. The aircraft has an 8-foot wingspan. The wings are made of a special foam, coated with a fiberglass skin."

A computer numerical control, or CNC, process is used to guide construction of the aircraft.

"They're all wing -- there's no fuselage, no tail," Imel said. "You can shoot it with an assault rifle and it will fly. It can carry a 20-pound payload. It doesn't require a runway."

An Air Robotics drone typically costs $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the cost of the on-board sensors and avionics, Imel said. The drones have agricultural, law enforcement and military applications.

Ballard said it's his understanding that one agriculture application is to outfit a drone so it can communicate with a tractor on the ground. The drone can then signal when more or less fertilizer should be applied, so fertilizer is distributed efficiently.

Additional information about Air Robotics is posted on the company's Web site at

According to an article published Monday in The Wall Street Journal, the use of drones is growing rapidly - especially in the military - because they are smaller than piloted aircraft, have less extensive electronics systems, don't require as much fuel, and don't need big runways or major logistics support. They also don't require as much pilot training.

The Journal noted that military drones have transformed the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The manufacture of drones - also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs - is not new to West Virginia. Aurora Flight Sciences has been making fuselages and tails for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk UAV for eight years, first in Fairmont and currently in Bridgeport.

Ballard said the West Virginia Development Office worked with Air Robotics in making the move to Charleston.


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