Could Traverse City someday become known as the Drone Capital of Michigan?
That’s the mission of five local entrepreneurs who are partnering together to launch SharedSky, a new Traverse City nonprofit dedicated to expanding and promoting northern Michigan’s unmanned aviation industry. The organization aims to educate the public on the “safe and ethical use” of drone technology, host drone activities and events, advocate for pro-industry legislation, and act as a networking hub for companies, employers and individuals. SharedSky also hopes to open the region’s first drone park – a designated zone where drone operators can socialize and safely fly their devices.
“We have a cool industry for drones here in Traverse City, and we’re already unofficially the drone capital of Michigan,” says Christian Smith, president of SharedSky’s board of directors and CEO of Traverse City-based Interactive Aerial. “With this organization, we’d like to make Traverse City the official drone capital of Michigan.”
SharedSky’s founding members all have expertise in different areas of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). “Each of us as industry individuals has decided to team up for the greater good of the community,” says Smith, whose company manufactures customized drone equipment for inspecting enclosed structures and hazardous environments. Dennis Wiand of Zero Gravity Aerial specializes in aerial data collection and environmental assessment, while Enrico Schafer of Drone Law Pro is experienced in FAA drone laws and regulations. At SkySkopes – a North Dakota-based national UAS firm that opened a Traverse City satellite in January – James Greenway focuses on energy industry inspections and agricultural surveying.
Meanwhile, fifth founding member Rob Dreer brings education and commercial components to the nonprofit as assistant chief UAS instructor at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) and owner of Cherry Capital Drones. NMC is a crucial piece in the puzzle of SharedSky’s mission, according to Dreer; its booming UAS program can provide a direct pipeline of talent to companies considering opening in or relocating to Traverse City.
“NMC is the center of everything happening with drones in the region,” says Dreer. Smith adds that “everyone (at SharedSky) is in some shape or form tied to the school,” having graduated from or worked at or connected through NMC’s UAS department.
SharedSky hopes to encourage drone education and enrollment by forming partnerships with organizations including Traverse City Area Public Schools, Junior Achievement and the Boy Scouts of America, teaching young people about drones and promoting careers in technology. The nonprofit is working on hosting a Drone Day in October open to Boy Scouts across Michigan, tying in to the Boy Scouts’ new initiative to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The nonprofit also hopes to educate hobbyists on drone laws and ethics. “You have a rapidly growing industry with quickly changing laws,” says Smith. “We want to help members of the community understand what you can and can’t do with drones, what’s legal and what the best practices are.”
Grand Traverse County officials see SharedSky’s initiative as a potential economic development boost for the region. “We would like to build on what NMC has done to be known as the county with experts in drone technology…to say this is the place where you can come learn (about drones) and build a business,” says County Director of Community Development and Codes Jean Derenzy. She says the county has offered its support to SharedSky, working to connect the founders with potential partners and organizations, looking for test sites to expand drone agricultural use in the region, and brainstorming locations for a potential drone park.
County Administrator Tom Menzel says he’s also helping set up a meeting between SharedSky and the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office to ensure area law enforcement are versed in drone laws and industry practices, as well as potential technology for the department. “Drones have an immense amount of interesting applications, so we want to make sure we’re on the leading edge of this in the county,” Menzel says. “We’re very supportive of (SharedSky).”
Smith says the ultimate goal of the nonprofit is to create a UAS “hub” in northern Michigan, expanding on a “micro-climate of drone activity” to become an epicenter of UAS education and business. Agrees Dreer: “We want people to say this is a drone-friendly environment…so that companies will want to headquarter here, and so there’s a direct line from NMC for students to jobs. Whether it’s drone manufacturing, programming, coding, autopilot development or anything else, we want to attract that to Traverse City, so we’re not just a resort-based economy – we’re also a tech economy.”