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Clackamas drone maker flies high in fledgling industry

Local drones show skills in National Geographic TV show


by: COURTESY AERIAL TECHNOLOGIES INTERNATIONAL  - ATI co-founders Lawrence Dennis (right) and Stephen Burtt with an S800 drone on an Idaho rafting trip.A small local drone building company is about to get some national exposure.

A new television show on the National Geographic Channel will pit a drone built by Clackamas’ Aerial Technology International against a remote control, laser-guided rifle. The episode of “Showdown of the Unbeatables” will be broadcast at 9 p.m. on Friday, April 18.

According to the promotional material for the prerecorded episode: “The TrackingPoint Rifle, one of the most accurate firearms on the market, shoots a laser beam to track its target — there is virtually no way this gun will miss. But when pitted against the ATI drone — an agile eight-rotor, unmanned flying octo-copter — the winner of this showdown is anything but certain.”

Although ATI co-founder Lawrence Dennis says he’s not supposed to reveal what happened, the company is pleased with the outcome.

“Let’s just say it turned out well for us,” says Lawrence.

Not that ATI needs any publicity right now. According to Lawrence, the company he launched in 2007 with business partner Stephen Burtt is swamped with work. Its eight employees are busy filling orders for custom-built drones from around the world. Most are assembled from components from global manufacturers of everything from electric motors to cameras to meet the demands of enthusiasts and a increasing variety of businesses, including farmers and energy producers who want aerial inspections of their holdings.

ATI was originally started as a service company, and it still does the occasional odd job. The company recently demonstrated how cameras on drones can track irrigation flows on agricultural fields at a farm show in McMinnville. During an event held after the show, Dennis flew the drone next to the Spruce Goose inside the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

The contrast between one of the largest and one of the smallest flying machines ever built is hard to overstate.

FAA limits industry

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - John Van Gieson of Aerial Technologies flies a Phantom Drone outside the company's headquarters.Dennis says drones have changed since the company was founded seven years ago. The earliest ones resembled small helicopters, with a single rotor and second blade on the tail. Today’s drone feature four, six and even eight upright rotors, giving them the designations quad, hexa- and octo-copters.

ATI has grown into a one-stop shop for anyone interested in drones. Based in a non-descript office park, it has assembly areas lined with different kinds of drones, racks of components, including cameras, and an indoor flight pad that shares space with a ping-pong table.

“There are not a lot of companies you can consult with if you want a drone but don’t know exactly what you need,” Dennis says. “We talk to our clients about how they plan to use them, then custom-built them for each situation.”

Dennis says the drone industry is exploding around the world. He believes the United States is lagging behind most other countries, however, because the Federal Aviation Administration has banned commercial drone use until it writes new rules for their use, which aren’t expected until late 2015 at the earliest.

“Drones have many uses, from entertainment to industrial surveying. Some people are concerned about privacy, and I understand that. I wouldn’t want anyone spying on me, either. But until the FAA issues its rules, there’s a lot of uncertainty that’s limiting growth,” says Dennis.

Some companies that use drones aren’t willing to wait for the FAA to act. According to an article in the April 7 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a Texas group that searches for missing people is threatening to sue the FAA because of its restrictions, arguing that the agency has no legal authority to prohibit drone use. Texas EquuSearch had used a drone to find the body of a missing 2-year-old boy in a southwest Texas swamp in 2012.

The National Geographic episode featuring the ATI drone will not touch on such serious issues. It is a fast-paced, hour-long staged competition program with three challenges per show. The first two have already run and featured such competitions as a rock breaker versus a high-end safe, a flame thrower versus a fire truck and a water cannon versus supposedly bomb-proof paint. It is hosted by fast-talking TV personalities Brian Unger and Zane Lamprey, who make sure it stays light.