WARREN — Michigan’s defense contractors gathered this week to boost business with the defense sector at the 2013 Michigan Defense Exposition, staged at Macomb Community College’s Warren campus by the Michigan Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association.

And among the technologies on display was a graceful unmanned airplane with an 11-foot wingspan, the product of Merrill Technologies Group, a Saginaw County company that started as an auto supplier but which now has a decade-long history of following new industries wherever they lead.

Merrill’s Torrent has a wing span of 11.3 feet, a fuselage length of 6.6 feet, and a battery propulsion system that renders it virtually silent. It can carry up to 10 pounds of surveillance and camera gear.

Most importantly, the aircraft can be launched by hand — literally tossed into the air by a single operator. It can be packed down into a small suitcase and assembled without tools.

The small plane flies at 35 to 95 mph and can stay aloft on one battery charge for more than seven hours. It can fly from treetop level up to 15,000 feet.

Craig Witte, general manager of the aviation and defense division of Merrill, said the plane is being tested by Merrill and a few potential users.

In 2012, Merrill united its fledgling defense and aviation divisions. Today, the division tackles business ranging from building a remote weapons station for the Army’s main battle tank, the M1-A1 to refurbishing landing gear for Boeing and overhaulng aircraft engines.

Witte said Merrill saw all the attention being paid to UAVs and began developing the platform a few months ago.

“We’re targeting an unmet need in aerial platforms,” Witte said. “We’re targeting the ability to fly with a hand launchable, highly transportable platform that can operate over long durations, more than six or seven hours.”

Witte said there are numerous possible applications for the aircraft. “There’s a lot of civilian applications, from border monitoring, border protection, agricultural use, crop harvest projections, pipeline monitoring — the list is really endless,” he said.

Merrill started in the tiny town of Merrill, west of Saginaw, in 1968 — with just a Bridgeport mill, a small lathe and a grinder and founders Gary and Mary Kay Yackel. It began offering fabrications in 1974, added engineering design and build of special machines in 1982, continued expansions through the 1990s, added the aviation division in 2007 and the defense division in 2009.

Merrill today has more than a million square feet of manufacturing space and almost 500 employees. Its other divisions are Merrill Tool and Machine, Merrill Fabricators and Merrill Engineering and Integration.

More at www.merrilltg.com.


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