A company that trains corporate and government clients to operate drones wants to set up shop at the Concord Municipal Airport to help figure out how unmanned vehicles can work alongside piloted aircraft. If the plan goes through, this would be one of the first such operations in the country.
ArgenTech Solutions, a nine-year-old firm based in Newmarket with operations overseas, has received permission from the city council to rent out a portion of one hangar, both to house drones and to set up a training facility. It still needs permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones inside the airport’s controlled airspace.
“It’s an emerging technology, and we’d love to be at the front of it,” said David Rolla, who manages the airport for Concord Aviation Systems, which leases the airport from the city.
In a November presentation to the Concord Airport Advisory Committee, Rita Hunt, a former aviation planner with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation who works for ArgenTech, said the firm had looked at other small airports but “the layout and location of the Concord airport is more compatible to their business plan.”
According to minutes of the meeting, the company wants to house a training program at the airport for “professional pilots, military or commercial operators.” Drones would be flown “an estimated six to eight days per month” and no research and development is planned, they said.
ArgenTech declined to give details of its plans or timeline beyond this statement: “We are in the development stages of a program that would provide commercial UAS (unmanned aerial system) services and professional UAS training opportunities to public safety entities, as well as companies interested in entering into UAS market. The focus of these trainings and services will be the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System and advanced aeronautical training for UAS operators.”
Corporate statements aside, ArgenTech has it share of experience in New Hampshire drone training.
“If anyone knows how to do this, how to fly and create a training area over there at an airport, it’s ArgenTech,” said Jim Cloutier, who owns a drone-photography businesses and teaches the drone-operator certification program in UNH’s professional development system. ArgenTech has participated in that UNH program in the past, he said. “ArgenTech has wanted to do this for a while.”
Carol Niewola, senior aviation planner with the state Department of Transportation, said the FAA is trying to streamline the application for waivers like the one that ArgenTech needs because companies are clamoring to set up in or near airports.
While no operation like this exists in New Hampshire, and she knows of none in the country, Niewola said the proposal didn’t surprise her.
“The technology is advancing so fast. It’s just a matter of the rules and the agencies like us keeping up with them,” she said.
An internet search finds a couple of instances around the country of drone companies wanting to set up at small airports like Concord Municipal, but none of them appear to have been put in place just yet.
ArgenTech not only trains drone operators but helps develop drones and related equipment and contracts for maintenance and field operators for a range of services. According to press releases, these include remote sensing for scientific climate-change research on the Arctic coast of Alaska, helping the British Navy arrest drug-smugglers in the Indian Ocean, and partnering with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for the production of a long-endurance drone for research observation that lasts days, weeks or more.
Long-endurance drones are usually fixed-wing aircraft, like a small airplane, rather than the design used by hobbyist drones which are like small helicopters with multiple rotors. Fixed-wing drones need some sort of runway, which may be part of the reason that ArgenTech wants to come to Concord.
“They’re going to sell the equipment, the training, the follow-up and whatever needs to go with it,” Cloutier said.
The company’s website says that since 2011 it has provided “60,000 hours of frontline field services to the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as drone-based imaging to markets as diverse as agriculture, digital mapping, and oil and natural gas.”
However, mixing drones and airports is not easy because of safety concerns.
Under FAA rules, recreational drone operators should let the airport know when they’re flying within 5 miles of it – a radius that covers most of Concord – but that notification rarely happens. Concord’s airport does not have a control tower.
Rolla, the airport manager, noted that ArgenTech doesn’t deal with hobbyists.
“I think the big difference is that at the commercial level, the people are pilots. They’re abiding by all the rules and regulations that normal pilots would be in a piloted aircraft. The fact that they happen to be standing behind a computer screen doesn’t make a great difference,” he said.