Biz Buzz: Aeromech Engineering: Look, ma — no pilot!

Unmanned-aircraft maker spreads wings in spacious facility on SLO’s south side

March 1, 2011 

AeroMech Engineering Inc., an aircraft defense engineering and manufacturing firm, has opened its new corporate headquarters and manufacturing facility in a sprawling warehouse complex at 125 Venture Drive in San Luis Obispo.

On the city’s south side, the roughly 116,500-square-foot, orange building is highly visible off Highway 101 to the east — but only engineers there are fully privy to the details of what is made within: unmanned aircraft that assist the military in surveillance missions and the computer systems that guide them.

Among them is the Desert Hawk 3 — an 8-pound, foam-core aircraft covered in kevlar that has a four-foot wingspan and can fly 1.5 hours. AeroMech manufactures hundreds of aircraft a year, though officials declined to disclose the exact number, citing security reasons.

AeroMech signed a lease in November with Vachell Lane Properties LLC to expand into the building, occupied until 2009 by eyewear manufacturer Dioptics. Dioptics moved to 1327 Archer St. in San Luis Obispo.

AeroMech is leasing about 80 percent of the building, including 14,000 square feet of office space and 65,000 square feet of high-bay warehouse space, according to AeroMech co-founder and chairman Thomas Akers. A portion of the building is leased by PG&E, and the rest is vacant, said President and Chief Executive Officer Jay McConville.

The warehouse space is flooded with light and features distinct lab, testing and production bays, some with large equipment for cutting or covering portions of the aircraft.

In 2008, The Tribune reported that AeroMech employed 85 people, reported $10 million in annual revenue and operated in 45,000 square feet off Ricardo Court in San Luis Obispo.

In August 2009, Chandler/May Inc. bought a 51 percent ownership stake in AeroMech. The Alabama firm specializes in unmanned ground vehicles and command-and-control computing systems.

Since then, AeroMech has expanded to 100 employees, and it plans to hire more — though McConville declined to disclose exactly how many it expects to hire or the firm’s current revenue and profit.

AeroMech operates a smaller office in San Diego, Akers said.

McConville said the firm is still in the “Wright’s brothers” stage in terms of growth opportunities.

He expects that within two years, after the FAA sets regulations for the use of unmanned aircraft over domestic airspace, the company will be able to develop unmanned aircraft for myriad civil applications, such as collecting information to assist firefighters or power companies.

AeroMech was founded in a Los Osos garage by Cal Poly graduates Akers and Norm Timbs in 1999 with less than $1,000 of startup cash. Seventy percent of its engineers are Cal Poly graduates, McConville said.

AeroMech designed and produced the U.S. Air Force’s first small aircraft to be used without a flight crew, according to the company, and has since delivered more than 1,500 aircraft to U.S. and allied forces.

McConville declined to disclose the cost of the building refurbishment and reconstruction, which was completed by Specialty Construction of San Luis Obispo and involved erecting walls in the once-open warehouse space.

— Julia Hickey

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