Drone firm glides into new space


Jeremy Latchaw, founder of Macatawa Unmanned Systems. Courtesy Macatawa Unmanned Systems

While Battle Creek is mapping out a strategy to draw manufacturers of large military drones, one of the smaller players in West Michigan’s drone space is outlining the finer details and drawing on both military and civilian expertise.

Macatawa Unmanned Systems LLC is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) security company leveraging decades of military experience to bring drone usage to the public and private sectors.

The Holland-based company was founded in 2016 by Jeremy Latchaw, a military veteran and Grand Rapids Business Journal 40 Under 40 recipient in 2015. Latchaw drew on his previous experience leveraging UAV technology for infantry tactics to put it into daily civilian operations.

About three years ago, Latchaw attended a “Smart Cities” conference in Kansas City, Missouri, and realized much of the technology cities are adopting to enhance public services are the same means he was using working for the federal government.

“We started working with homeland security departments,” Latchaw said. “Now, we’re starting to branch out into businesses. They’re starting to see the potential benefits.”

Macatawa's clients include the state of Michigan, the federal government, Indiana University, numerous state homeland security departments, NOAA, many local and county police and fire departments, and now many private-sector businesses.

UAVs are becoming increasingly more useful for surveyors and builders, Latchaw said. As an example, surveyors can utilize a small UAV to survey a site and even produce 3D imaging.

“The newest stuff came out two months ago for them to be able to do really accurate surveys,” Latchaw said. “The accuracy of a drone is really close to what they do already, but you cut an hour off of operation time.”

Macatawa currently is working with an LTE company on cell phone towers in the Upper Peninsula to implement small UAVs for inspection, as opposed to using workers in bucket trucks.

The company also provides clients online and classroom training for operating UAS.

Macatawa may be able to leverage its smaller UAS solutions to assist larger military operations. According to an earlier Business Journal report, the city of Battle Creek’s economic development firm, Battle Creek Unlimited, received $150,000 in grants from the MEDC to expand its continued military infrastructure.

Battle Creek Unlimited President and CEO Joe Sobieralski said the organization’s current goal is to understand what type of ecosystem Battle Creek has now and what it would take to set up an infrastructure that supports large, military UAVs.

Fort Custer Training Center and W.K. Kellogg Airport at 15551 South Airport Road east of Battle Creek are both objects of interest.

While Macatawa’s small UAVs are not quite what Battle Creek Unlimited is gunning for at the moment, Sobieralski said the service could complement a military UAS operation once it’s set in place.

As a prior service member, Latchaw already has an idea of how they can come together. Previously, he was part of a think tank with the Michigan Department of Transportation, working a proposal for the FAA when the subject of Battle Creek and its drone potential came up.

“The one thing I was thinking of airport-wise was for counter-UAS, an overarching concept to deny access to critical infrastructure,” he said.

Latchaw said all commercial drones can be identified by a serial number that can be traced back to the operator, the only exception being RC toys and operators who may have removed their UAV’s license number illegally. If Battle Creek were to develop a site for military drones, it would present the question of how to deny access to unauthorized UAVs.

A possible solution would be geo-fencing, or virtual borders set up around real-world areas with GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi or cellular data. In 2015, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-New York, proposed a law requiring drone manufacturers to build geo-fencing constraints into UAVs that would override operator commands if the drone flew into restricted airspace.

For nonmilitary application, geo-fencing can be set up to prevent UAVs from flying into power plants, Latchaw said.

Latchaw said he believes Battle Creek is in a good place to attract large drone manufacturers, considering its airspace covers much of Fort Custer, and Michigan as a whole has the unique potential to attract large drone manufacturers.

Three things Michigan has that other states don’t is different airspace classifications, long distances over water and the national border with Canada, which all present the opportunity for large manufacturers to test solutions to these unique problems.

“We’re working with trying to become a test site for a lot of major companies,” Latchaw said. “Kansas has a lot of land to fly over. We have water, which is a different aspect.”

Enterprise Security Magazine named Macatawa Unmanned Systems among the top 10 small UAS security companies in the country.

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