It’s called a DATT SA-70 semi-rigid airship, and it’s tested positive.
Three months after Wewahitchka-based Skyborne Technology, Inc.’s investment arm, which owns Costin Airport in Port St. Joe, sailed through its annual inspection for manned and unmanned operations at the airport, the company has passed an essential stress test for getting its airship off the ground, and ultimately by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The seven-story high DATT, which stands for Detachable Airship from a Tethered Technology, and the 12th one built of its kind, proved durable in an inflation test two weeks ago.
“It’s kind of like the fuselage of an aircraft,” said Michael Lawson, CEO of Han Tang Technology/UAV Corp, of which Skyborne Technology, Inc. is a subsidiary. “Before you start finishing it, you have to make sure the shell of it is safe.”
This shell is composed of 52 large gore structures, which are curved panels, and each gore has three sections, each of them numbered.
“We check for temperature inside and outside the envelope, and what kind of water pressure it can take,” Lawson said. “How do your seams hold up?”
A key reason the hull of the DATT holds up is because of its composition, which consists of Dyneema thread woven with a bacterial agent, he said. The Dyneema, a laminated fabric constructed from polyethylene fiber monofilaments and polyester, has proven stronger than Kevlar, often used in making bulletproof materials.
The three layers of fabric unite an outside made of Tedlar for protection against ultraviolet light, with a middle section of Dyneema stitched with threads composed of a bacterial agent, to protect against degradation from the high-water content of the atmosphere. As a result, the fabric can last four times as long as the two-year life of more conventional fabrics.
The inside layer is made of Mylar, the same material used in birthday balloons to ensure they remain airtight.
The fabrics are cut into a pattern at a computer-aided design table, and stitched together, rather than being heat-sealed.
“After most manufacturing went overseas, it’s sort of an art that’s gone away,” said Lawson. “We go back to the way it used to be done. We sew it and then put a sealant where the seams are at, to make sure the threads aren’t leaking. You make a mistake by heat-sealing it.”
The DATT will have both manned and unmanned capabilities with a package of two drones onboard the ship. With a payload capability of up to 1,000 pounds, it can be configured as a hybrid-electric aerial platform with recharging stations for the two drone packages. Visit www.uavcorp.net to view the inflation video.
“The first (test) is always more difficult, but the rules never change,” he said. “You have to go through checks and balances with the seam testing, and then complete the avionic suite.”
Testing for the cockpit is done on a stand, where “we run it to see how long is this going to run on a tank of gas,” Lawson said. “Over the next two months we’ll be integrating all the systems now since the hull tested out.
“We hope to be in the air in two months,” he said. “I’d like it if it were earlier.”
Higher, faster, longer
The company is pinning its hopes on the enhanced, detachable functionality for the DATT, which enables it to travel further distances, and remain in the air longer and higher as it performs any one of several possible assignments.
“We’re a satellite at a very low altitude, that’s lighter, stronger and more capable,” Lawson said. “We’ve taken that aspect of it and married the drone industry with an airship drone, and adding an underwater portion.
“The amount of power you burn, with a boat or a barge or to fly it out there, uses a lot of power and you’re limited to how long you can stay on station,” he said, noting the entire system, with cameras, infrared capability and domes with drones is sold as a turnkey operation.
“The DATT technology being developed by Skyborne will be able to serve a variety of emergency response, security, and defense needs nationally, and that effort will begin right here in Port St. Joe,” said U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn. “Port St. Joe is a perfect place for a drone program due to all the open-air space over adjacent land and water.”
Propelled by four combustion engines, that can change to hybrid with electric engines, the DATT’s cockpit can float on a tether, such as off the coast of Florida, or over stretches of desert, and sight incoming threats, such as drug runners, or when a hurricane hits, assess damage and continue to provide much-needed communication.
“The inside kind of looks like a helicopter with windows, but it’s part of the airship, with a fuel deck, generator deck and antenna racks inside,” Lawson said. “It (the cockpit) is inserted where it becomes part of that outer envelope.”
Inflated with ambient air, the DATT has a separate helium bag that gives it its lift. Because it has a detachable component that can be refueled in the air, the airship is seen as able to avoid the costly disasters that befall sophisticated equipment when problems develop as high as 8,000 to 10,000 feet in the air.
“That’s a big problem, you’ve lost your asset,” Lawson said. “We came up with a solution where you detach it and fly it to where it needs to be, and hook it back up.”
He said the DATT can prove invaluable in continuing communication with first responders in the event of a disaster. “At 20,000 feet, three airships can cover an entire country, the size of Guatemala or Panama so you would have a complete communication,” Lawson said. “I see this as an environmental airship. Power grid monitoring is a huge business.”
County, college add needed support
Gulf County is backing the project through a $615,000 grant it received from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, which will subsidize the cost for the building of a new road, three-phase power, water and sewer related to the new airport hangar.
“We’re building the hangar on own nickel,” Lawson said. “That’s where the EDA comes in, paying for that infrastructure and for a road that is accessible, serving areas where they may add housing, or other construction.”
The DATT will also interface with Gulf Coast State College’s new drone program in which it is partnering with the Unmanned Safety Institute, with offices at the Gulf/Franklin campus. This hybrid instructional program, with a priority on exiting military personnel from the eight-county Panhandle region impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon, will enable students to receive up to eight industry certifications and college credit in an accelerated format, primarily online.
This boot camp is a nearly $4 million project, with the college and partners providing a $1.7 match to a $2.2 million grant from Triumph Gulf Coast.
“The DATT will become an integral part of our region’s emergency management in a post-disaster setting thanks in large part to the vision of the Triumph Gulf Coast board, and the incredible generosity and support of Mike Lawson and the folks with Skyborne Technology,” said Gulf Coast State College President John Holdnak, in speaking about the recent grant award the college received.
“The project partnership between Skyborne and Gulf Coast State College has ignited the burgeoning aerospace cluster in Gulf County, which includes drone certifications programs at the high schools and the unmanned aerial system boot camp at the Gulf Franklin Center,” said Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition.
“The inflated airship is hugely impressive. It is a big first step in the implementation of the disaster response system in our region of the state,” he said.
Lawson said other grants and contracts are under negotiations, to partner with the area colleges and businesses in developing the emergency response systems and the training programs necessary to deploy the DATT system, which employs the company’s Sentinel turn-key, seamless communication network.
R Squared Technologies, Inc. developed the Sentinel, a man portable communication network between wired and Wi-Fi enabled devices within a secure network, that can be used for both defense and emergency management applications, in response to a variety of adverse circumstances, including severe weather, natural disasters, power outages or even a hostile attack.
Economic development is a key concern of area business leaders, and they’re hoping Skyborne can help expand a high-tech manufacturing hub at the Costin Airport site, and bring new jobs to the area, with this project alone expected to bring in about 71 related new jobs.
“The ongoing cooperation and assistance from Gulf County, Gulf Coast State College, and Triumph Gulf Coast has taken an idea and turned it into a reality. The opportunity for both our company shareholders and the economic contributions to Gulf county has been created by partners that share a common vision with common goals,” said Billy Robinson, chairman of UAV Corp.
Lawson is excited about the worldwide possibilities open to the DATT, for everything from usage in Central and Latin America dealing with drug trafficking, to pipeline security, which has been a large problem in Mexico.
Plus, the DATT can be used to deliver medical supplies to remote areas, or even for distance learning, where a real-time live feed can enable a big-city physician to communicate with rural counterparts.
But first, the FAA will have to give its blessing, and Lawson is confident when all the testing is complete, that will be forthcoming.
“It all depends on the FAA signing off,” he said. “As long as you go through the rules and don’t try to shortcut them, you’re fine.”