He intended to fly big planes, but Evansville native attracted to drones

untitled Justin Kendrick launches the PrecisionHawk UAV during a demonstration last week at the Vincennes University Jasper Campus Center for Technology, Innovation, and Manufacturing in Jasper. The small unmanned aircraft weigh only about three pounds and are three-feet long from nose to tail. Staff photo by Brien Vincent

— Brandon Eickhoff said he’s been interested in aviation since attending his first air show, a Blue Angels performance during Thunder on the Ohio on the Evansville Riverfront.

The 22-year-old Evansville native went to Indiana State University in the fall of 2009 with the intention of becoming a pilot of much larger aircraft, but Eickhoff — who has his private pilot’s license — is now part of a suburban Indianapolis-based startup called PrecisionHawk that specializes in small unmanned aircraft. Those planes weigh only about three pounds and are three feet long, from nose to tail.

They are so small that they are hand thrown for takeoff, usually by Eickhoff or a co-worker, though he noted that pretty much anyone can do it. The craft is then is able to climb to more than 300 feet on its own and can cruise at about 30 mph. It also self-lands.

Eickhoff, a 2009 Mater Dei graduate, said he was the first student to complete Indiana State’s unmanned aircraft program.

“I’m very interested in the technology part of my job,” he said “The coolest part of it is being able to work with latest technological equipment that’s out there on the market.”

Eickhoff returned to the Tri-State last week when he and two of his colleagues came to the Jasper campus of Vincennes University as part of the school’s National Manufacturing Day celebration. Presentations were geared toward area high school students at the institution’s new center for technology, innovation and manufacturing, which opened in May.

Campus dean Alan Johnson said he’s intrigued by the work the company does and wanted to showcase them during the event. Ultimately, Johnson said he’d like the school to be able to obtain one of the crafts eventually, but because of the price tag — about $25,000 — there are no current plans to do so.

However, he said still wanted the company to come to the Manufacturing Day festivities, especially because of the partnership the college has with the county’s soil and water conservation district.

“It raises our profile as an institution that can provide leadership in the community for industry, for agriculture and for community development, because we’re able to reach out to companies like this and bring people together from multiple communities and multiple companies to see what’s possible.

Plus, as evident by the buzz the demonstration generated among the small crowd gathered outside the center to watch its flight, seeing the small craft take flight is just fun, Johnson said.

“I’ve been watching the videos,” he said. “But there’s nothing like seeing it is person.”

Agriculture is one of the industries that PrecisionHawk officials say their aircraft can help most because it can gather lots of information about crop production as well as research. Right now, most of PrecisionHawk customers are large farms, crop consultants, research firms and universities. He admitted that the aircraft’s price is a still a “choking point” for many, but he said technology is revolutionary for farmers.

“We’re allowing farmers to learn what they never knew before about their fields with a device that didn’t allow them that before,” said Pat Lohman, the company’s CEO. “We’re putting it in their hands,”

Lohman also gave a presentation about the company and its aircraft before the demonstration flight.

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