Picayune — Tim Brodgon and Skip Wright grew up 20 miles apart on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and shared several engineering classes together at Mississippi State University (MSU) in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the two connected and ignited unprecedented growth in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry.
Brodgon joined Ingall’s Shipyard for a brief stint after graduating from St. John’s High School in Gulfport. After being commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, where he taught electronics and RADAR repair at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Brodgon earned an engineering degree from MSU and was stationed at the Ballistic Missile Office headquarters in California, where he was the branch chief for Peacekeeper and Small ICBM mechanical systems.
After Brodgon left the military in 1989, he joined the contractor sector at Stennis Space Center as the lead engineer for the ASRM program. He earned an MBA from William Carey College and served as manager of systems engineering and advanced technologies for Lockheed Martin and also as program manager for GB Tech’s laboratory services.
That’s when fate crossed the paths of Brodgon and Wright.
Brodgon, vice president of business development for GB Tech, was searching for a talented engineer to lead the company’s subsidiary, Air-O-Space Inc. (AOSI), which specializes in providing high-resolution aerial remote sensing acquisition, including LiDAR and multi-spectral data, through custom-designed UAVs for a variety of commercial uses.
Meanwhile, Wright was searching for a way to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. After graduating from high school in neighboring D’Iberville, he had earned a mechanical engineering degree from MSU and joined General Dynamics in Ft. Worth, Texas, as a structural design engineer working on the F-16, YF-22 and the A-12 programs.
“My interest in aircraft and engineering stemmed from the fact I like to figure out how mechanical things work,” said Wright, who earned a professional engineers license in 1993. “Needless to say, they always didn’t go back together as designed. As a result, my father eventually resorted to locking up his tools in my early teen years to prevent me from ‘helping him too much.’”
Brodgon stumbled across Wright’s resume, but his name didn’t immediately click.
“I selected Skip from literally over 100 resumes,” he recalled. “During the interview, we both seemed to sort of recognize each other and then made the connection. He was the best and brightest of a very bright group of folks.”
When Wright joined AOSI in 2000, the company had been using a 20-pound, gas-powered UAV to capture video and multi-spectral imagery for government and commercial customers. For two years, Wright diligently researched product development and marketing possibilities for commercial applications, querying policemen and first responders who foresaw the usefulness of having an economical UAV platform for monitoring and surveillance.
“However, the 20-pound, gas-powered version wouldn’t fit their needs,” recalled Wright. “In 2004, we started to conceptualize a lightweight UAV model that was easy to use and with low acquisition and operational costs.”
Assisting in the recovery of Hurricane Katrina accelerated the development of a new model, the electric-powered LE/FR-5 (LE=Law Enforcement, FR=First Responder).
Bruce Barton, team leader of a rescue-and-recovery team in Hancock County, said the UAV system presented a “very stable platform and provided excellent quality video. The system allowed us to find inaccessible debris fields.”
Weighing less than six pounds, the LE/FR-5 UAV is highly maneuverable and easy to launch by hand. It has an endurance of up to an hour, depending on throttle settings. It can cruise at 18 miles per hour, with a top speed of 50 miles per hour, and fly at tree top level or up to 2,000 feet in winds as high as 30 miles per hour. Because the FAA requires line of sight, it has an operational range of roughly one mile. With two switchable cameras onboard — a forward-looking camera and a down viewing one — the digitally recorded video is transmitted live in real time. The UAV position (latitude and longitude), speed, altitude and heading data is shown as test overlay on the viewing screen, and the ground control station has a moving map feature.
“Because new product development is expensive, our mantra for our LE/FR-5 UAV model was to keep it simple,” said Wright. “We’ve been successful with the prudent application of GPS, autopilot, electronics and camera technology.”
When the Picayune Police Department partnered with AOSI last year to use UAVs in the city’s war on drugs, it represented one of the first examples in the nation of using unmanned aircraft to combat crime. While police officers were handling other duties, UAVs were quietly humming overhead, surveying the landscape for marijuana fields, gathering video surveillance and zooming into otherwise inaccessible areas.
Picayune Police Chief Jim Luke said the department “has been very effective in the drug offensive due to this innovative use of technology available, which has saved the taxpayers many dollars.”
Wright said the partnership showed that “using UAVs was not only an excellent use of the technology, but it would help make our community safer as well.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.