Memphis companies soar with fast-growing drone business

Memphis companies soar with fast-growing drone business
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A Memphis-based company has played a key training role in the U.S. military's use of drones across the world.

"The reason why unmanned vehicles are so effective in the kinds of wars we're involved in these days comes down to one word and that is persistence," said Allen L. Mullen, Founder and CEO of Crew Training International.

Mullen, a former TOPGUN Naval aviator, told the Memphis Rotary Club that the 18,000 pound remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) known as the Reaper delivers persistence by staying aloft in excess of 24 hours at a time as land-based human controllers change shifts.

Mullen's company helped train controllers for unmanned aircraft between roughly 2008 and 2013.

"We go to extraordinary measures to make sure that the individual who is being targeted by this weapon system is the correct person, the person who is truly, in fact, our enemy," Mullen said.

Mullen was named 2012 CEO of the Year by Memphis Business Quarterly for his leadership at CTI. Mullen said he founded the company in 1992 to develop quality training solutions for the U.S. Department of Defense and has created programs for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Spanish Navy, Italian Navy, NATO air crews as well as NASA air crews.

In addition to classified missions to train U.S. military drone operators, Mullen's company offers flight instruction for civilians at the Millington Regional Jetport as well as an airport in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

"Why do we use these things in combat,? Mullen asked Rotarians. "It keeps our young men and women out of harm's way," Mullen said, answering his own question.

The aviator explained that once a drone is launched in a friendly location close to the "sandbox," the theatre where the enemy is engaged in Afghanistan or elsewhere, its control station can be located anywhere in the world.

"As soon as it's up in the air," Mullen said, "they transfer command to a geosynchronous satellite," and Mullen said from that point on, the control system could be located anywhere.

Mullen said a ground control station could be located in Memphis, for example, and manned by a pilot and sensor operator. He said the drone could be controlled via fiber optic cables connecting to Creech Air Force base in Las Vegas, NV, then Boston, MA, under the Atlantic Ocean to a base in Germany, up to a satellite and down to the unmanned aircraft.

"With encrypted data going from here to there that takes 7/10 of a second," Mullen said.

The Cornell University graduate explained that the controller examines return video from the front lines of the "person of interest" being tracked and that process takes yet another 7/10 of a second. "

That's quite a training challenge," Mullen said, explaining that the 1.4 seconds of delay would be unacceptable to drivers on I-240 as they tried to turn a steering wheel and nothing happened for 1.4 seconds. "My company had the privilege to do a tremendous amount of that training while we were ramping up the unmanned effort," Mullen said.

The Nashville Wing of the Tennessee Air National Guard operated the Reaper in Afghanistan for the last three years and displays an image of the RPA on its home page.

Mullen was joined in his presentation to the Memphis Rotary Club by Brandon Turk, an entrepreneur who transformed his hobby with drones into a business.Turk said 901 Drones was born in January 2015 when his job at Blackberry ended abruptly as the company folded. Turk said his wife encouraged him pursue his passion with unmanned aircraft.

"Globally, it's growing very, very quickly," Turk said of the drone business and the thirty-something entrepreneur has positioned his company on the leading edge of the drone business in the Mid-South, serving Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and the Gulf Coast.

The company website features jaw dropping photography of Memphis landmarks taken with 901 Drones cameras taking spectacular panoramic and close up images.

"We do bridge inspections, cell tower inspections and fly over crops," Turk said of some of the services provided by his business now located at the AgriCenter in East Memphis. "We can see quadrants (of crops) that are perfect and quadrants where bugs are attacking," Turk explained of his services available to farmers. "Now farmers can go out an apply fertilizer (or whatever treatment a crop needs) to just these rows instead of an entire field."

Turk explained that he keeps close tabs on the Federal Aviation Administration's evolving rules and regulations for drones.

"It changes daily and sometimes, it changes hourly," the businessman said of the FAA's restrictions on where and when drones can be flown and by whom.

901 Drones is authorized to operate drones commercially and all of its aircraft are registered with the FAA and insured. Turk's company website features examples of stunning real estate photography but says real estate agents who attempt to create similar images without FAA authorization face big trouble.

"If you don't have a 333 Exemption, the agent will be fined $10,000 and so will the homeowner; these laws are not very well known," Turk said. "That's why you see a lot of hobbyists and everyone being very careful so you don't have the FAA knocking on their doors."

901 Drones custom builds its aircraft and has a machine shop in Memphis and operates a certified flight school with all the licensing requirements. Turk said the overnight delivery company DHL, a competitor to Memphis based FedEx, has been using drone product delivery in the German countryside and that it's experimenting in urban environments with drone delivery of blood between hospitals, speeding the process that would take 45 minutes by van to 7 minutes by drone.

Turk predicted drone delivery will come to the U.S. but "I don't see them coming to your house and delivering to your backyard," Turk said.

Instead, Turk predicted companies like Memphis based AutoZone, Inc. might one day ship a car part via drone with timely delivery as part is needed.  The businessman says he's working to create a "center of drone excellence" with the University of Memphis and plans to hold a "drone expo" in April 2016.

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