Aircraft plant to land in Westminster Firm's hopes ride on unmanned plane

July 18, 1993|By Amy L. Mill | Amy L. Mill,er Staff Writer

A company that specializes in manufacturing unmanned aircraft is planning to build a 20,000-square-foot plant at the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster.

Freewing Aircraft, a product of the University of Maryland's Technology Advancement Program, plans to move from its College Park development facilities by year's end.

TAP is the university's high-tech incubator, which gives businesses staff, equipment and technological support to get started. Freewing, incorporated in 1978, entered the program in 1989.

Freewing Executive Vice President Odile Legeay said she and company President Hugh Schmittle came to Carroll County because they were impressed with how its administrators work together.

"At a meeting, we were able to get all the parties that had to do with the project there," she said. "That's a definite plus for Carroll County. We have looked at other counties before where one group thinks one thing and another thinks something else and goes the other way." Ms. Legeay said that Carroll County also was chosen because it is close to Baltimore and Washington.

"Baltimore is very important when you're exporting because it has one of the best ports and airports on the East Coast," she said. "We have been very pleased with the Port of Baltimore. We are a small company, but a global company."

Freewing needs to be near Washington to contact national and international military personnel about their unmanned aircraft, often used for scouting and espionage work.

"You can handle those things very easily if you are close to Washington," Ms. Legeay said.

Building plans call for expanding the plant to as many as 60,000 square feet as the company grows, she said.

Officials expect to have at least 40 employees by the second year of production. The current eight employees will move from College Park to Carroll County, Ms. Legeay said.

"We want to be, on purpose, very conservative," she said. "We don't want to say we'll have thousands of employees and then not meet that."

Resurrecting a concept dropped in the early years of flight, Freewing works with a flexible wing attached to the fuselage with hinges. It flexes with turbulent air to produce a smoother and safer trip.

This patented "freewing" concept is found in the company's Freebird MK-5, a two-seat plane, and the small unmanned Scorpion, which could have a wingspan of 15-feet, carry 50 pounds and have a cruise speed of 130 knots.

After the Persian Gulf war, international interest in using unmanned military aircraft persuaded company officials to concentrate on developing plans about 18 months ago, Ms. Legeay said.

"It was always something we had hoped for from Day One," she said. "Everybody in the military realized this was the way to go. Why put people at risk when you can put a microprocessor on board which is much better, much cheaper and without risk?"

Production in the Westminster plant will begin with the Scorpion, currently designed solely to carry video equipment, and will build up to manufacturing a four-seat craft, Ms. Legeay said.

Although the company has not started production, officials have received several inquiries from parties interested in the unmanned plane, Ms. Legeay said. "They are not definite contracts yet, so I'm reluctant to give names," she said. "But they are very [well] known names, both in the United States and Europe."

State funds for building a Freewing plant at the Carroll airport, through the Maryland Industrial Land Act and a Community Development Block Grant, are awaiting approval. A public hearing on the grant will be 3 p.m. Friday in Room 300A of the Carroll County office building.

"If this financing is successful in bringing Freewing to Carroll County, it will be due, in part, to a partnership agreement between the state and county," said William E. Jenne, administrator for the Carroll County Office of Economic Development.

A zoning change is necessary to make the deal work.

Westminster officials are considering an ordinance to make aircraft construction an allowed use in a restricted industrial zone, said city planner Thomas B. Beyard.

Although there is some land zoned restricted industrial in downtown Westminster, most is at the Air Business Center, Mr. Beyard said.

City Planning and Zoning Commission officials have recommended that the City Council adopt the ordinance. Westminster's mayor and council expect to schedule a hearing on the ordinance in early August.

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