Archive for Saturday, April 24, 2004

Company designs unmanned aviation vehicles

April 24, 2004

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Spies and soldiers are among the main customers of a Lawrence-based startup company that has plans to become a high-flying member of the aviation industry.

Officials with KalScott Engineering, 920 1/2 E. 28th St., expect their four-employee firm to take off in 2004. The company designs unmanned aviation vehicles, and have landed three contracts with large government agencies.

The planes, which look like remote control aircraft on steroids, are designed to be flown without a pilot in the cockpit. Instead, they're flown by computer software using global positioning system technology, or in some cases, by a pilot using a remote control device.

"This is definitely the next chapter in aviation history," said Suman Saripalli, KalScott's director of new business. "There is no question about that."

Saripalli is projecting that the company's revenues will double in 2004, hitting $2 million. Optimism runs high at the company, in large part, because the U.S. government has shown a strong interest in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs as they're called.

The military is interested in using the vehicles to fly intelligence cameras into enemy territory or to fly over U.S. borders and ports to be on the lookout for terrorist activities. Science organizations, such as NASA or the National Science Foundation, hope to use the planes to fly over places like Antarctica for mapping programs. KalScott is working on programs for both NASA and the National Science Foundation, in addition to the Department of Defense.

"People in the industry say they're great for dull, dirty or dangerous missions, and there are a lot of those these days," Saripalli said.

KalScott was formed in February 2002 when Saripalli, who has a master's of business administration from Kansas University, teamed with Tom Sherwood, a KU doctoral student and engineering graduate.

Both were involved in other parts of the aviation industry but were excited about the potential of UAVs.

"I said let's do this for a couple of years and see if something comes of it," Saripalli said. "It seems like something has come from it."

Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said he believed the best days were still ahead for companies like KalScott. That's because the government, particularly the military, is becoming more convinced UAVs are the wave of the future.

President Bush's proposed Pentagon budget calls for $2 billion worth of UAV purchases in 2005, up from $1.3 billion this year.

"The public is unwilling to accept causalities and loss of life anymore," Davidson said. "Traditionally those were just factors of war, but people now realize that if we can put a robot in the field and save lives, then, by golly, that's what we're going to do."

But Davidson predicted that the largest eventual user of UAVs would be the private sector. In the next 15 to 20 years, Davidson sees a world where gas and oil companies will use the vehicles to monitor their pipelines, news organizations will replace their traffic helicopters with the machines, and companies like FedEx will use larger unmanned planes to deliver overnight packages.

"Anything you can do with an airplane, you can probably do with a UAV," Davidson said. "There's going to be a vast proliferation."

How big the company becomes, though, is still a question that is very much up in the air. Saripalli said the company was examining its long-term business strategy. If the company chooses to focus on being just a design firm for UAVs, Saripalli predicted its employee totals would remain relatively small.

But he said KalScott hadn't ruled out becoming a manufacturer of the products it designs. Also, he said the company may build UAVs and rent them out and fly them for private companies that need them for occasional use. If the company follows that business path, it could need 20 or more employees in the Lawrence area.

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