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A peek behind drone maker AAI Corp.’s curtain

In an unassuming industrial complex in Cockeysville, not far from the hustle and bustle of the York Road corridor, sits the campus of AAI Corp., a 60-year-old aerospace and defense company that churns out everything from unmanned reconnaissance planes to high-concept machine guns.

AAI was founded in Baltimore County in 1950 and has grown into one of the largest employers in the county with 1,650 employees, most of whom live in the county. The company, which is on track to generate nearly $1 billion in revenue, is continuing to grow. AAI had 300 new hires this year alone and is hiring to fill an additional 81 positions.

The company is a subsidiary of Providence, R.I.-based Textron Inc., which also owns airplane manufacturer Cessna and Bell Helicopter.

On Wednesday, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and his team of economic development staffers visited AAI as part of an effort to reach out to existing major employers in the county.

Watch video from our tour of AAI’s facilities

Kamenetz met with AAI senior executives and a contingent of local media for a rare tour of the company’s manufacturing facility.

AAI has maintained its headquarters in Baltimore County, and its campus houses manufacturing facilities for a number of its products, most notably its line of unmanned aircraft including the Shadow 200, a workhorse reconnaissance and support plane used extensively by the U.S. military. The Shadow line has about 700,000 flight hours under its belt, 90 percent of that in combat environments, according to Steve Reid, senior vice president of AAI’s unmanned aircraft systems division.

“It’s fascinating — we read about these, but to see that it’s made right here in Baltimore County really gives us a sense of pride,” Kamenetz said.

The facility houses the entire manufacturing line for the Shadow planes, from raw material sculpting to final assembly and testing. The home of the Shadow line is a large facility, with a military inspired level of cleanliness and order where the planes can be churned out in about 2½ days.

The Shadow is unarmed, although there are plans to add a weapons package to a future model. The plane features a 16-foot wingspan, weighs 380 pounds and is powered by a rotary engine, similar in design to the one used in the original Mazda RX-7 cars. The single, two-blade propeller-driven Shadow has a top speed of 126 miles per hour and can stay aloft for about nine hours, according to the company.

Larry Long Sr., manager, factory operations for AAI’s unmanned systems, said the facility not only turns out new planes but does all the work needed to get them back in service when needed. He said the Shadows spend about 250 hours in the air before they need an overhaul, which is carried out completely in Cockeysville.

Given the growth of the company and the increased hiring, Kamenetz said he wanted AAI to know that the county was doing what it could to help them succeed, including beefing up science, math and technology curriculums in the schools so hiring locally would be easier. Kamenetz said he decided to make more of his administration’s focus on reaching out to existing employers instead of putting all of the county’s energy in trying to lure new companies to the county.

“My approach is, let’s look at what we have and how can we get them to stay and grow instead of making it a competition where one government is trying to outbid another,” Kamenetz said.

Kamenetz said that in addition to AAI, he has already made visits to spice maker McCormick & Co. Inc. in Sparks and diet food company Medifast Inc., in Owings Mills.