Santa Fe Aero Services is betting that, in a few years, unmanned aerial vehicles will regularly land at its local repair and maintenance stations for routine upkeep like private and corporate aircraft do today.
The company, which runs aircraft maintenance and avionics centers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, is one of the first operators to join the new “Robotic Skies” network of repair and service stations for UAVs.
Robotic Skies, which officially launched this month in Albuquerque, is recruiting aviation service operators to create the first nationwide maintenance chain for thousands of unmanned aircraft that industry professionals believe will be flying in U.S. skies in just a few years.
“We’re the Robotic Skies launch service center for New Mexico,” said Aero Services Vice President and General Manager Patrick Horgan. “We’re positioning ourselves to be on the front edge of this emerging technology in aviation.”
Robotic Skies founder, president and CEO Brad Hayden said the goal is to get in on the ground floor.
“We see huge opportunities,” Hayden said. “Even if it’s still a little ways out, we need to start preparing. This is where aviation is going to go, and we need to embrace it now to thrive from it in the future.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is working on a regulatory framework to prepare the nation’s civilian airspace for UAVs by 2015. That target may be unrealistic, given the complexity of assuring complete safety before integrating commercial drones into domestic skies.
But when the national airspace does open up to drones, it’s expected to produce a boom in the aviation industry, with estimates of up to $90 billion in economic impact and more than 100,000 jobs in the first decade. UAVs could be used in everything from surveying wildfires, agricultural lands, and remote areas to delivering packages to homes and businesses.
And, as thousands of drones start crisscrossing the country, they’ll need regular access to service stations for maintenance, repair and inspections, Hayden said.
“Commercial drones will need different levels of service, just like manned systems today,” he said. “That’s particularly true of medium-to-large UAVs, which will fly in and out of airports and designated areas.”
Robotic Skies has already recruited a number of aviation service operators in the West and Southwest. That includes centers in Utah and Nevada run by Kings Avionics, a family business where Hayden is president.
Robotic Skies will provide UAV-related service training to network operators. It will also negotiate maintenance contracts with drone manufacturers and dealers, Hayden said.
The company is partnering with a local firm to provide cloud-computing and software to track all maintenance issues related to each UAV serviced through the Robotic Skies network.
Separately, Hayden has launched a new website and information service, dubbed “Drone Port,” that offers news and analysis of the emerging UAV industry, plus a venue for industry professionals to discuss the future of aviation as drones enter the skies.
John Uczekaj, president and CEO of Aspen Avionics in Albuquerque – where Hayden held executive positions until resigning in January – said his former colleague is blazing a new trail.
“UAVs are where it’s at today,” Uczekaj said. “He’s starting a completely new business in a new UAV world where many opportunities are emerging.”