SIERRA VISTA — Scott Rollefstad was working as an engineer for a heating and air conditioning company in December, 2010, when he heard the news that Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed near Nogales.
Terry walked into an ambush and was killed by gunmen camouflaged by desert foliage and the dark of night. Rollefstad said he knew then that he had to do something to help other agents and first responders faced with comparably dangerous situations.
“The technology was available, and there was no reason that the people who are our protectors had to go into a place where they didn’t have the information they needed to improve their safety,” Rollefstad said.
Responding to that need, Rollefstad put his 20 years of engineering expertise and his familiarity with the latest technologies in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to good use, developing prototypes of the Cyclone 6 A, and B models.
Thursday, Rollefstad was joined by a host of local officials to formally unveil “Four Pillars,” a new venture under the direction of the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation (SVEDF).
The effort brings together private and public organizations to establish a testing and training facility that will be available to companies developing UAS technology. The SVEDF has acquired a 160 acre parcel near Whetstone where it will be making improvements to two existing runways and building a hanger. A local company, Thompson-Wimmer, will be the test site manager at the property and serve as an industry consultant.
Mignonne Hollis, SVEDF executive director, said Tucson-based Cyclone is the first of several companies that are actively interested in utilizing what Four Pillars has to offer.
“We’ve been in touch with people in the agriculture industry that are looking at this technology and are anxious to get involved,” Hollis said.
Hollis said the relationship with Thompson-Wimmer, a Sierra Vista company, is a key component in what the SVEDF plans to accomplish. She noted that Brian Wimmer has been working with companies on the commercial applications of UAS, while Trish Thompson has focused on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and finding out what the agency will be developing for industry guidelines.
“There is a lot of commercial interest in this technology right now, and the only thing that is holding it back is how fast the government can set up the guidelines,” Hollis said.
Cyclone, which was represented by Rollefstad and chief operating officer John Waszczak on Thursday, is at least 18 months from bringing its prototype models to market.
Waszczak said the company needs more venture capital before it can complete the work necessary to actively market its products for sale, and there is an ongoing development project that will build a new “energy harvesting” UAS, that will significantly extend the length of time the device can hover.
He said at the present time, Cyclone models will sell for between $25,000 and $30,000, which is roughly one-half the cost of other, comparable devices.
As the company continues to develop, Waszczak said the relationships with Sierra Vista officials and Four Pillars will be important for testing and training of the Cyclone UAS.
“Within the next few years this industry is expected to see 40 percent annual compound growth, and by 2018, we’re looking at a $2.8 billion industry,” Waszczak said.
Hollis said the importance of offering companies a private location for testing is important, providing a place where new technology can be tested but not revealed to the general public, or competing businesses.
Waszczak said Cyclone anticipates selling its models to first responders and other “protectors,”and may utilize Four Pillars as its training facility.
“As this rolls out to fire departments, police departments and other agencies, this is a place where we could bring people and do the training for these systems,” Waszczak said.
However, one of the primary advantages of the Cyclone B model, Rollefstad said, is its portability and easy of use. The collapsible UAS fits into a cylindrical tube that can be easily carried, or packed into a relatively small area. The device is operated from a laptop computer, compared to other systems which require a ground-based facility to work.
“The idea is that it should be easy to transport, quick to set up, and very easy to learn how to operate,” Rollefstad said.
The company has been working with the Tucson fire department to test the effectiveness of the Cyclone for fire and HAZMAT situations, Waszczak said. Announcement of the testing and training project represents a continuation of efforts that the SVEDF began as part of a statewide bid to win designation as an FAA testing site.
Hollis was named president of the Arizona Test Range Complex UAS Industry Consortium by the Arizona Commerce Authority in 2010, serving as a contact for the Southeast region.
“All-in-all, it was an impressive effort on everyone’s part. We had some very talented individuals working to secure Arizona as a test site,” Hollis said.
On Dec. 30, 2013, the FAA announced its selection of the six nationwide test sites for developing a plan to integrate UAS into United States airspace and Arizona was not among the locations.
“Honestly, we weren’t worried. We already had a backup plan in place and not being part of the FAA’s selection wasn’t going to hinder it in any way,” Hollis said. “We were ready to move forward with our own test site.”