LAKELAND — Mark Boyd’s interest in drones began as a hobby. But it led to his newest career as the president for GRIFF Aviation North America, an independent company affiliated with the Norway-based GRIFF Aviation.
Three months ago, the super heavy-lift drone assembly plant opened at 3420 Flightline Drive in Lakeland, at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The plant will assemble drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles — for customers that include search-and-fire rescue teams, military personnel and companies with industrial and agricultural uses.
The company expects to assemble about six drones per week for distribution throughout North America. Each drone will have heavy-lift capabilities, some up to 900 pounds.
Boyd’s own interest in drones brought the plant to North America. He obtained his commercial-drone operator’s license in December.
“I had a small Phantom 3 drone,” said Boyd, 74, who was previously a project development manager for David Schultz Airshows. “I was flying it on my boat in Daytona Beach in the marina, and somebody wanted me to video their boat going out.”
But at the time, he couldn’t — he needed the commercial license.
“Taking that step made me more and more interested in that aspect of drones,” he said. “I started taking a keener interest in heavy, commercial drones that could lift 500 pounds, and I thought that was amazing.”
The company was GRIFF Aviation. Boyd booked a flight to Norway, where he negotiated a deal with GRIFF to represent all of North America. His North American team includes seven people now, including former military drone pilots and engineers. He plans to hire two more as business progresses.
With a drone-friendly atmosphere and quick access to Tampa shipping hot spots, Boyd said Lakeland Linder Regional Airport was the perfect location for the assembly plant.
“They’re very drone-friendly,” he said. “The airport management here is just terrific. There were already some existing drone operations at this airport, so it’s easy to get waivers and authorizations to fly our drones. We get our drone components from Norway, so it’s easy to bring them into Tampa.”
Though the airport is drone-friendly, flying will only take place on the premises at the request of GRIFF North America customers.
“The maximum we’ll ever fly here is maybe 20 feet,” Boyd said. The airport has a gated cage used for drone testing. “The only time we fly is when a customer wants to see a demonstration, and that’s done in the cage. We’re just an assembly plant, we don’t manufacture.”
Once customer orders come in, they’re sent to Norway for evaluation. GRIFF Aviation in Norway builds the drone, then disassembles it and sends it to the Lakeland assembly plant, where it’s put back together before being shipped out. Costs for GRIFF drones begin at about $250,000.
“That way it’s made in America, the money stays in America and I’m employing American people,” Boyd said.
Boyd anticipates about 50 percent of the company’s business will be military related. In the future, he hopes to add a West Coast operation and wants to build a manufacturing plant at the existing location.
Angela Brown, the operations manager for GRIFF North America, has seen the need for heavy-lift drones in the search and rescue field through her previous work as a firefighter paramedic in Brevard County.
“For search and rescue, it would be phenomenal,” said Brown, 47. “You can get to places where a helicopter can’t necessarily get. A drone can pretty much go anywhere, so that would make it easier to get to them.”
Brown said that drones also can be used in emergency situations, including after natural disasters.
“In a big disaster, you could use them to drop supplies just to help get people by until you get to them,” she said. “Every little bit counts.”
Even though the company plans to finish about six drones each week, drone construction can take about three weeks or more, depending on project requirements.
“We've had active orders,” Brown said. “And we have a lot of interest with a bunch of people we've been talking to that will likely develop into more orders.”