The walls of Gene Payson’s Sarasota garage workshop are lined with remote-control airplanes and other bizarre flying vehicles that look like something out of a science fiction movie. Some are made from Styrofoam, others from high-tech composite materials.
“This one here,” Payson says, pointing to a bizarre, suitcase-sized machine with six rotary blades and a digital camera hanging underneath its retractable, spider-like legs, “this is what we train our students on.” He explains how a laptop computer using GPS and Google Earth is used to remotely operate the small-scale unmanned drone.
Payson picks up another of his drones — a small Styrofoam airplane with a video camera mounted in its nose. The plane is launched like a paper airplane, Payson said, and then piloted by an operator wearing a high-tech visor that projects images beamed down from the aircraft’s camera.
“A lot of people get motion-sick wearing this thing,” Payson says, referring to the visor. “Even though they’re just standing on the ground.”
Out of his home workshop on Honore Avenue, Payson, 57, and his three employees build small-scale drone aircraft, also known as UAVs, for civilian and military clients around the world and run what might be the world’s only civilian flight school for drone pilots.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else out there doing what we’re doing,” Payson says. “Right now, we’re like Bill Gates writing programs in his garage.”
Payson, a mechanical engineer by trade, is the president and CEO of Troy Built Models Inc., a Sarasota-based company that is one of the largest hobby retailers in the world for remote-control (RC) airplanes. The Chicago native’s career has ranged from working as an engineer for DuPont to creating a dating website. But he eventually settled on channeling his passion for RC airplanes into opening a hobby shop. And when the sale of RC airplane autopilot systems provided a gateway to building small-scale drones, Payson’s Sarasota operation caught the attention of the Air Force and Naval research labs, which eventually purchased some of Payson’s UAVs and brought him on as a drone instructor pilot.
Payson now builds small-scale drones for a variety of civilian and military clients worldwide. He has sold and provided training on the Penguin B drone to a game preserve in Africa trying to crack down on illegal poachers, and he recently returned from a trip to Africa to train the Nigerian Air Force to use the Aerostar UAV in battling Boko Haram, an al-Qaida affiliate. Payson also received a request from Kuwait to train drone pilots for patrolling oil fields.
Following the 2012 attack on the U.S consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Payson said an ex-Navy SEAL at the Pentagon contacted him about using his drones for security at U.S. embassies.
“I told them I couldn’t do it,” Payson said, referring to the Pentagon’s request. “We’re not set up for that scale of operation — yet.”
Payson’s Sarasota flight-training operation is an affiliate of the Phoenix-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) University — the only school in the world to offer doctorates and master’s degrees in unmanned systems engineering and project management. Students training to be UAV pilots travel to Sarasota for a $3,500, three-day course run by Payson, which includes 24 hours of instruction. Prior to arriving in Sarasota for training, students complete a 16-hour, computer-based drone ground school developed by Payson, which is the first of its kind. The hands-on training flights are conducted at a remote-control aircraft landing strip in Sarasota, which satisfies current FAA restrictions on the commercial use of UAVs.
Payson’s students — he has about one a month — are mostly ex-military, and many are international, traveling from as far as Sweden, South Africa and Japan for training.
Payson said, however, the UAV University does not provide training or equipment to citizens of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Libya.
The UAV University flight-training program that Payson runs is at the vanguard of an industry predicted to be worth at least $85 billion and employ 100,000 people globally by 2025. One Air Force report estimated the global UAV market could top $500 billion in the next decade. The defense department plans to increase its fleet of drone aircraft by 45% over the next 10 years, according to a DOD report.
The commercial and law-enforcement use of drones in U.S. airspace is currently prohibited (although waivers have been issued for certain uses such as border-patrol operations) but the FAA plans on opening domestic airspace to UAVs as early as 2015 — giving the U.S. private sector a foothold in a new global market.
Although the FAA has not yet announced what the requirements will be to operate drones in U.S. airspace when the current restrictions are lifted, Payson and the UAV University are shaping their flight-training program in anticipation of the FAA’s requirements.
“The idea with this university is to get students to the level so they can pass the FAA exam,” Payson says.
“Of course, we don’t even know what the rules will be yet.”
The FAA estimates 10,000 drones will hit U.S. skies when the rules for domestic operations are set, and Payson’s Sarasota flight school will be one of the only places in the world with the curriculum and infrastructure ready to go to train the industry’s new pilots (a career with a $104,000 average annual salary).
“We will be set up to be one of the first ones in the game,” Payson says about the Sarasota flight school. “But, God knows how many more will open up once the FAA approves drones for U.S. airspace. And once there’s a market, you’ll see venture capitalists and big companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin jump in the game. The FAA really ought to get their rules sorted out; it would be a real boon to the economy.”
BY THE NUMBERS
10,000 — Number of drones expected to hit U.S. airspace when the FAA lifts its restrictions on their use
$3,500 — Cost of UAV University’s drone pilot flight-training program
$104,000 — Median starting salary for a drone pilot
2015 — Year by which the FAA is expected to lift restrictions on the domestic use of UAVs
$85 Billion — Estimated worldwide market for UAVs by 2025