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Forest County Drone Company Agrees to Military Deal, Takes Part in Disaster Simulation

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Blades of helicopters slice incessantly through the western Wisconsin sky.

“Security Forces is finding people in a search and rescue exercise. They’re finding people and they’re evaluating their needs and they’re sending them out on helicopters, in case they need medical care,” explains Lt. Col. Sarah Ashley Nickloes of the U.S. Air Force and Tennessee Air National Guard.

National Guard soldiers and airmen, alongside civilian emergency crews, lift mannequins and live actors onto stretchers.

This is PATRIOT 21 at Fort McCoy and Volk Field near Tomah, a disaster simulation that brings together more than 1,000 people from 26 states.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Lt. Col. Sarah Ashley Nickloes.

“So, we had an earthquake, a notional earthquake, that happened just south of here,” Nickloes says of the situation. “We’re receiving locations so that we can respond to the people that are nearby and the people that are flowing into the area.”

Some of the camouflage-clad National Guard soldiers and airmen have been deployed overseas in the past.

But the Guard’s first priority is serving the homefront.

That often involves working alongside civilian police officers, like Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Justin Raes.

“We’re still getting through those growing pains,” Raes says. “It’s good to constantly train, constantly reevaluate, hey is this the best way to do it? Or can we improve? That’s the ultimate goal, to constantly improve.”  

Credit Scott Williams
Mac Williams flies the WiscLift drone at Fort McCoy.

As Humvees from across the country bounce along dirt roads at Fort McCoy, one civilian outpost has a decidedly Northwoods feel.

Scott Williams and his son, Mac, launch an aerial drone the size of a small table. Fitted with 20 pounds of communications equipment, each WiscLift drone is a portable, flying cell tower.

“We will throw our drone up and we’ll put both a WiFi connection and a 4G LTE connection [on it]. That means your first responders will be able to connect on their cell phones,” Williams says. “But even more importantly, in my mind, the survivors will be able to connect and we’ll be able to find them, or [they] will be able to call and say, hey, I need this, or I don’t have water, I don’t have those things.”

WiscLift is a Forest County startup.

Its drones can bring connectivity to disaster zones and rural school students, but Williams is excited about its newest venture, an agreement with the Air Force Research Lab.

“We’ve now been able to present our technology all across military research and they say, yes, there is a need, we understand it, let’s build a military solution together,” he says.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A prototype of the military-grade drone in development.

Rahul Tiwari is in charge of development of the military-grade drone.

“We’ve sourced every component from the bearings in the motors to the core airframe to be all American. Nothing comes from anywhere else,” Tiwari says. “We’ve really, really hammered down on making this thing the toughest drone you can buy.”

WiscLift already was optimistic in the development progress it had made.

But the vote of confidence from the military accelerated things even more.

“What the Air Force opportunity has really given us [is], a lot of America’s greatest innovations, from the internet to MRI machines, were funded by Uncle Sam,” says Tiwari. “What it really lets us do is start pouring gasoline on the fire, develop quicker.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The PATRIOT 21 disaster simulation takes place hundreds of miles from the Northwoods.

If Scott Williams has his way, WiscLift’s communications drones will someday be deployed across the country and overseas.

But major parts of what it does will be centered around Forest County.

“We have a major project underway in Forest County to make sure we stay there permanently,” he says. “That’s very exciting for all of us. We’re looking at putting in a dedicated research site and facility where we can test UAVs and drones.”

In fact, Williams has his eye on a farm for sale in the Town of Hiles and is looking to partner with the county itself to buy the future research and testing facility.

“That’s all going to come out of Forest County. That’s exciting to us. We started in Forest County. We’re staying in Forest County. Really big things to come on that,” he says.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Rescue helicopters crisscross the sky at PATRIOT 21.

At Fort McCoy, the Northwoods-based WiscLift drone shares airspace with the rescue helicopters buzzing overhead.

In the future, perhaps they’ll be helping rescue not actors or mannequins, but real disaster victims.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Guardsmen prepare to carry a disaster victim to a waiting helicopter.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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