Lawrence aviation company in growth mode after winning NASA contract
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
A Lawrence-based aviation firm has won a new NASA contract, and it also moved into new space that will allow it to go from just designing high-tech aviation prototypes to actually building them.
DARcorporation this week was selected by NASA for continued work on a project that will test how artificial intelligence can be used to pilot unmanned aircraft in the future.
DARcorporation previously had done work on phase one of the project in conjunction with aerospace engineering and computer science departments at the University of Kansas. Now, the two-year phase two project will involve building an actual prototype aircraft — probably with a wingspan of about 10 feet and length of about 8 feet — that will use the artificial intelligence systems and new aircraft design concepts that DAR is developing.
Terms of the deal, which was awarded as part of the Small Business Innovation Research Grant program, are still being finalized. Company president Willem Anemaat said the award was a big win for DAR, which does work for the U.S. Air Force and other government contracts. The grant will put DAR in a good position to do additional work on unmanned aircraft projects in the future, he said.
“The unmanned aircraft segment is going to be billions of dollars in the future,” Anemaat said. “It already is billions of dollars, but it will be a lot more in the future.”
Anemaat said the prototype aircraft being designed by the company could become important in conducting future research on both unmanned aircraft systems and new design configurations for aircraft. The prototype is being constructed in a modular format that will allow engines of the aircraft to be easily repositioned to test the effects of engine placement and other variables.
If the prototype proves successful, DAR will explore manufacturing the aircraft for other customers, ranging from other government agencies to university and industry research programs.
The idea of getting more into small-scale manufacturing was a consideration in DAR’s recent decision to relocate. The company in March moved into 16,000 square feet of space just north of 31st and Haskell. The company is leasing space in a portion of the industrial building that previously housed E&E Display Group.
The new space includes a mix of office and production space. For the past 16 years, DAR had been located in office space along Wakarusa Drive, which had only a small shop space. The new space has 5,000 square feet that can be devoted to production.
“This is going to let us go a step further in projects by manufacturing some things that we design,” said Anemaat. Previously the company has contracted with other vendors to do manufacturing of prototypes designed by DAR.
The additional capabilities should result in some new jobs for the company. Job growth at the company has been on the upswing for the past two years, Anemaat said. He said the company now has 22 employees — 20 of them engineers — and he’s in the process of hiring one to two additional engineers.
Previously the company has traditionally had 12 to 14 employees, Anemaat said.
The company also has one other longer-term growth prospect that could provide an even larger boost to the Lawrence job scene. As we reported in July 2017, DARcorporation entered into a partnership with Chinese-based Sterna Composite Aircraft Inc. to help it design a new, lightweight composite aircraft propeller.
At the time, Anemaat expected the deal to lead to Sterna opening a small manufacturing facility in Lawrence that would add 10 to 20 manufacturing jobs in its first couple of years of operation.
DAR is doing significant amounts of design work for Sterna, but thus far the manufacturing plant hasn’t materialized. Anemaat said the plant deal has been impacted somewhat by the political tensions between the U.S. and China, but he said Sterna also is still grappling with the difference in manufacturing costs between the U.S. and China. Sterna, though, may find it necessary to open a U.S. plant if it wants to have more U.S. sales.
“Customers in the U.S. prefer to see technical items like this manufactured in the U.S.,” Anemaat said.
Anemaat said it was difficult to predict when, or if, the Sterna deal may materialize. But he said he does believe Sterna can be convinced that if it is to locate in the U.S. that it should do so in Lawrence so that it can be close to one of its major design partners.
“We are trying to convince them that there is a lot of growth capability here in Lawrence,” Anemaat said. “If they are going to do something in the U.S., we keep telling them Lawrence is the place to be.”