Andy Biechlin and Marcy Eisenberg knew they wanted to get back into aviation but didn’t exactly know how that would look. After years of building and maintaining a national security consulting firm, earning numerous national benchmarking awards and recognition including being an INC 500 and INC 5000 honoree, while being named one of the 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Led Private Companies in America, a Washington Business Journal’s Best Places to Work, and Inc’s Top 50 Best Small to Mid-size Workplaces in the United States, Andy and Marcy sold their company to pursue their goal toward aviation.
Together they founded Xelevate, the first physical drone and unmanned aerial system (UAS) testing, event, and educational facility for both commercial and recreational use, situated on 66 acres in Loudoun County, directly outside of Washington, D.C.
“We chose Loudoun because of the air space and land,” said Eisenberg, president and co-founder of Xelevate. “When we presented our idea for zoning, no one had any idea how they were going to zone the land because this type of space didn’t exist. We were a force multiplier and had no competition. Everything we’ve done has been a first.”
Xelevate is truly a one-of-a-kind entity. The primarily outdoor facility welcomes private , government contractors, along with federal, state, and local government entities to test and demonstrate their unmanned system capabilities. They offer onsite labs, 20-foot steel containers that have been transformed into insulated, finished, and furnished offices, outfitted with HVAC, internet, and utilities. They even have the only fixed-wing drone flight school in the state. The school features an onsite weather team lab and microsite for drones. It also has a mobile operations center where students can see where drones are operating across the U.S. Both Eisenberg and Biechlin are FAA Part 107 Certified Commercial Drone Pilots and are working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create policies and procedures to help shape a national action plan for drone safety.
“We offer drone infrastructure as a service and are connecting the dots in unmanned systems. Since we aren’t pushing one technology over another, we see the trends first,” Eisenberg remarked. “We consider ourselves to be a makerspace. People who come here are early adopters. It’s fun to see! And working with the FAA has been eye-opening. With drones so readily available for anyone to purchase, this has never been so hard to regulate. We are working to create reasonable regulations that don’t inhibit growth but encourage a safe and effective environment for drone use. We need to get policies, procedures, and laws in place.”
Xelevate is currently the largest drone airport on the east coast and in 2022, after expanding their operations to Washington, North Carolina, they entered into a first-of-its-kind strategic partnership with the Washington-Warren Airport (OCW) providing access to 600 acres of uncontrolled airspace and two runways exceeding 5,000 feet.
“We are establishing a corridor from Virginia to North Carolina. In Virginia, we are close to the DC government space but in North Carolina, we are close to operators at Department of Defense (DOD) facilities,” said Eisenberg of the partnership and locations. “For our North Carolina location, we are working with the Airport to build the Southern-Atlantic Drone Workforce and Data Fusion Center, which will help solve training and career connection matters long term. This will include indoor flight facilities with classrooms for training, demonstrations, workforce events, conferences, and more. In Virginia, we did the first ever Air & Drone Show in Leesburg. It was surprisingly successful and well-attended for the first one.. Being so close to DC allowed government contractors to check things out in person. We plan to do it again October 2023.”
Eisenberg anticipates the 2023 Washington-Warren Air & Drone Show will have 20 suppliers and become a procurement frenzy. All industries including government, academia, agriculture, agribusiness, and healthcare companies will be invited to attend. It will be a fusion of emerging technology and the show will be focused on driving American made technology and innovation that will be used to solve complex issues and save human lives.
“With my primary focus of creating a business ecosystem where UAS companies can thrive and grow, it is important that we have a space dedicated to demonstrating the practical, tactical, and critical usages of drones within the county,” said Brandon Ferris, Loudoun Economic Development Business Development Manager in Specialized Manufacturing, Logistics, and Aviation. “As a guiding light for unmanned systems development, Xelevate has proven to be a valuable partner and business engagement asset. Xelevate is one of the foundational elements in Loudoun’s strategic vision for unmanned systems within the county, not only as an attraction, but also as a business development energizer and drone community builder. Loudoun is dedicated to the growth and success of unmanned systems companies within our borders and beyond. Xelevate is helping take our vision to new heights.”
Another unique characteristic about Xelevate is how they pay homage to Virginia’s rich agricultural history with their public safety, scenario-based feature, Farm Town. This development is comprised of old farm structures including dilapidated barns, houses, vehicles, and equipment that are used for testing and special operations.
“Farm Town is really cool. The structures were here when we bought the land and the previous owners offered to take them down. We told them we’d like to keep them,” Eisenberg smiled. “It is used for live demonstrations. Clients can define entry points and perform area-based testing. It is great because drones can replace the threat of danger to humans in certain situations. We have a fake ‘meth lab’ where test drug busts have been done. We’ve also had a bug detection test with the farm equipment using artificial intelligence. Drones and other unmanned tech are being used more in threatening situations and saving human lives. They see from above. Radar can’t go through hills.”
Xelevate’s remote location also lends to the quality of testing that is done. Some of their high-end clientele require a secure location for their tests and they can accommodate without disruptions to neighboring properties. The trees are used for obstacle avoidance, and they once had the opportunity to create a bonfire to test thermal imaging. Eisenberg stated that the data gathered from the bonfire test can come in handy when using drones to manage forest fires.
She also foresees the use of drones and other unmanned systems to increase across various industries and is looking forward to seeing those types of systems tested at Xelevate. With the introduction of H. R. 9376 – the National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Initiative Act, Congress is taking steps to accelerate the research of civilian unmanned aircraft systems and advanced air mobility for development in areas of national security and other purposes, such as healthcare. AAM is a new concept of air transportation, similar to what is seen in futuristic movies, that uses electric vertical takeoff and landing to extract humans from situations that are not easily served by surface transportation or existing aviation modes.
“Healthcare is a way of the future for drones,” Eisenberg predicted. “Research is being done on Advanced Air Mobility that focuses on how to integrate drones instead of air taxis. We hope that one day drones can be used as first responders in hazardous situations. They also have the ability to look for CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] threats, which are lethal to human life. They’re already used for UV sanitizing. It was done a lot during the pandemic.”
Xelevate is more than a location. It is a destination where people whose interests or careers in drones and unmanned technology can come to test, train, learn, and innovate. They are currently in phase one of three of their facility site plan and anticipate moving into phase two in 2023.
To learn more about Xelevate, please visit their website.
To explore becoming a drone pilot, please visit the FAA website.
To see how Loudoun can help your unmanned business, please visit our dedicated webpage.