An oil rig in international waters is a target for piracy and terrorism, and fixed cameras monitoring surrounding waters provide only so much warning.
But the Gainesville-based Six Maritime security firm has a new weapon that has helped warn crew on oil platforms and ships much sooner: Commercial unmanned aviation vehicles — drones — mounted with cameras.
Six Maritime CEO Joseph Allen said the UAVs with 10-kilometer range have spotted terrorism and privacy threats several times. Though he would not be specific about incidents, Allen said the advantage drones provide over fixed cameras “is vital. … For something like an oil rig, [UAVs are] extremely important because you can’t immediately go into a defensive posture if there’s active drilling operations. You don’t want to get into the middle of a gunfight and they need time to shut things down.”
Allen said the drones give his security company a competitive advantage. They also symbolize the state of commercial drone use in 2014 under a Federal Aviation Administration ban — U.S. companies are selling and using drones overseas.
That could change next year, when the FAA is expected to issue rules governing commercial drone use in this country. In the U.S. today, anyone can buy UAVs, but they can only be used for recreation over American land.
If the FAA acts as scheduled in 2015, it would release a pent-up demand for drones in a wide array of commercial uses, say UAV builders such as Gainesville-based Prioria Robotics Inc., which is at the forefront of an industry that has hundreds of drone developers nationwide.
Six Maritime, which also has offices in San Diego and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, has made a two-year investment of $1 million in seven UAVs built by Prioria, related equipment, training and operation costs.
“It’s a key component that we use to differentiate us from all the competitors. As far as we know we’re the only maritime security company utilizing these things out in the field,” Allen said. He acknowledged his company gets a discount from Prioria in return for field research, development feedback and data.
But Prioria CEO and founder Bryan da Frota said the Six Maritime purchase is just a sample of growing demand for UAVs. He said about 200 clients already have purchased drones from his company. Where Prioria used to handle military and government contracts almost exclusively, commercial customers have jumped from 2 percent to about 25 percent in just the past two years, da Frota said.
He predicted that figure will skyrocket when the FAA ban on commercial UAVs ends.
Locally and nationally, the new customers will come from industries like railroads and real estate.
For instance, da Frota said his company’s heavy-duty UAV, called the Maverick, could be used to check pipelines or rail lines.
One of the nation’s largest rail companies is intrigued. Officials at CSX corporate headquarters in Jacksonville said the company is considering purchasing drones.
“CSX is looking at how unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, could be used in certain aspects of railroad operations including bridge inspection, terminal surveillance and incident response,” spokeswoman Kristen Seay said.
Heavy industry is firing up the market for drones, but there is high demand as well for less complex projects in service industries.
“Realtors are very interested in using unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Melanie Green, communications director for the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors. “What we want to do, of course, is to have Realtors showcase properties, particularly if you have a property that is two or three stories. A drone would be a nice thing to go up and take a photo of a nice window.”
Green said real estate agents are eager to use the most accessible UAVs that resemble recreational remote-control, multi-propeller helicopters outfitted with video and still cameras. Those are some of the most affordable drones at less than $500. The smaller UAVs can provide panoramic views of properties and buildings easily accessible online.
“We’re seeing an incredible increase in the amount of interest in these systems,” da Frota said. “They’re already using them.”
While the FAA maintains the prohibition on commercial UAVs in the United States, da Frota said there are exemptions that can be secured through filings with the agency.
He’s also getting increased business from international companies that are using the drones in other countries, where there are no prohibitions on UAVs.
Prioria’s smaller UAVs weigh about 5 pounds. The company also specializes in heavy-industrial-use UAVs that resemble small airplanes.
Prioria’s Maverick aircraft has a nearly 3-foot wingspan and launches either by hand or through a tube that shoots the UAV into a liftoff for multi-mile flights. It’s the same vehicle used by Six Maritime in many cases.
The Maverick is expensive — $30,000 to $40,000 for the remote-control system, launching mechanism and aircraft. It is intended for inspection, surveillance and monitoring of some of the most rugged industrial infrastructure scenarios and security settings.
Real estate use and maritime security are the types of commercial applications that officials at Aviation Systems Engineering Co. on Jacksonville’s Westside have been touting for years.
ASEC doesn’t manufacture drones; it provides applications for them. And ASEC Program Manager Brent Klavon expressed his frustration during a presentation to the newly formed JAX Chamber Transportation & Logics Council on July 24, when many in the crowd of about 200 people seemed mystified.
To many, drones still conjure the image of deadly weapons. However, the FAA’s ban has been concerned mostly with airspace traffic.
ASEC’s history is rooted in military development of drones since 2004, but the company hopes to develop a UAV testing center in Jacksonville once the FAA prohibition is lifted.
“I’ve had personal inquiries from large companies,” Klavon said.
As vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International for the Florida Peninsula Chapter, Klavon said UAV manufacturers across the state are finding more domestic demand for the systems while they’re filling contracts overseas.
“The manufacturers that are producing these things agree that there’s a pent-up demand domestically, so they have to go overseas to sell their products,” Klavon said.
“There’s a hesitancy [among corporate clients]. They don’t want to buy a fleet. They want to dip their toe in the technology.”
While the current FAA prohibitions on commercial UAVs remain in place, some developments give drone advocates hope that the ban could be lifted before 2015.
UAV manufacturers and industry associates expressed relief in June when the FAA granted the first permission for commercial drone flights over land. The decision allowed drones with cameras to survey oil pipelines over land mainly in Alaska.
Allen said it was just one step toward the day when UAVs are ubiquitous among corporations and companies.
“I’m not surprised at all [by the demand]. Anyone who sits back and thinks about it will realize that 50 years from now it will just be a component of industry and security that everyone accepts,” Allen said. “Now, how we get from here to there, I’m not sure how it’s going to happen, but it will.”
©2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)