Daniel Preston, founder, CEO and chief technical officer of Luminati Aerospace, talks to the town board about his plans for EPCAL. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Aeronautical engineer Daniel Preston has plans to return the Long Island aerospace industry to its former place of glory from the Calverton site that was once its epicenter.

The founder, CEO and chief technical officer of Luminati Aerospace says his company recently purchased the Skydive Long Island site in the Calverton Enterprise Park for $3.4 million for the development and production of solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles.

And please don’t call them drones.

“‘Drone’ has such a negative connotation,” the soft-spoken native Long Islander said during a public hearing in Riverhead Town Hall last night.

Luminati is developing next-generation, solar-electric UAVs pursuant to a contract with “a Fortune 250 company” that’s funding the research and development project, expected to take about two years to complete. The project will immediately create approximately 40 jobs in Calverton.

“After the initial project is concluded, Luminati plans to establish itself as a major force in the global aerospace industry, focusing on cutting-edge, hi-tech aerospace manufacturing,” Preston told the Riverhead Town Board last night. “The manufacturing will trigger significant expansion of the Luminati facilities and create a substantial number of additional jobs.”

Preston said he cannot publicly disclose the identity of Luminati’s client.

“Our client believes that public disclosure of its identity at this time would be premature, but the list of companies in this space is very limited,” he said.

A new era in aerospace emerges

“The identity of our client has been disclosed to the town supervisor, Mr. Walter, subject to the terms of a nondisclosure agreement,” Preston said.

Facebook and Google — both Fortune 250 companies — have recently disclosed they have engineers working to develop solar-electric communications UAVs.

Facebook launched its first full-scale communications UAV in July as part of its Internet.org effort, which aims to bring wireless internet to everyone in the world – especially to those in places where internet isn’t available.

The UAVs will have the ability to essentially “beam” wireless internet down to the earth’s surface. They would fly at about 65,000 feet – above plane traffic, in unregulated airspace.

“Our client will fund the substantial up-front capital expenditures for facilities, equipment and materials,” Preston said, “and make periodic payments to Luminati as specified milestones are achieved.”

Preston’s remarks came during last night’s public hearing on whether Luminati is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” under the state urban renewal law, which will allow the Riverhead Community Development Agency to enter into a runway use agreement with the company.

Luminati has offered the same payment terms currently being paid to the town for runway use by Skydive Long Island, with one big addition: it will assume responsibility for maintaining, repairing and repaving the 10,000-foot runway.

Supervisor Sean Walter said the company’s agreement to assume responsibility for the runway is “huge” because the cost of repairs and repaving, if necessary, is beyond the town’s ability to pay. The runway will fall into such disrepair it won’t be usable by anyone at all, he said.

Resident: ‘The rent is so nominal, it’s meaningless’

Larry Simms of South Jamesport said the proposed runway use agreement does not adequately protect the town.
Larry Simms of South Jamesport said the proposed runway use agreement does not adequately protect the town.

South Jamesport resident Larry Simms criticized the proposed runway use agreement as “the most lopsided real estate deal since the Dutch bought Manhattan for 24 bucks.”

The agreed-upon price works out to just $50 per acre per month, Simms said. “Use of the runway is a resource that can be measured in time and it works out to about $8 an hour to rent the 50-plus acres,” he said. That’s less than the price we’d pay a babysitter, he said.

“The rent is so nominal, it’s meaningless.”

Simms said the agreement, which has a term of 30 years, lacked performance standards or restrictions, allowing the company unfettered discretion to use the runway in any way it desired, including renting it out to other companies for their use without any oversight or approval by the town. There is no termination clause in the agreement, he said.

If runway maintenance is important, the contract has to be written to require it to be done, and done to a specific standard — and there has to be some accountability to the town, Simms said.

He argued that the town should put runway maintenance out to bid to establish a market price for the runway use.

“Do this right,” Simms said.

Supervisor: ‘Other states were going to pay them

“There were other states that were going to pay them to come — pay them,” the supervisor answered. “In a perfect world everything you’re saying makes sense, but when you’re competing against other states that were going to pull out he checkbook, it’s a whole different story.”

Preston said that “of all the locations” he scouted, “this is the only one requiring us to pay.

“We basically left the existing agreement alone,” he said. “We left it alone and were asked to throw in millions of dollars more.”

Preston said there is a misimpression that Luminati wants exclusive use, a concern raised prior to the hearing by Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who is running against Walter for the supervisor’s post.

Preston said Luminati does not seek exclusive use.

“We don’t want to be the FBO [a fixed-base operator, which manages an airport] but you need to have someone to actively de-conflict aircraft. Just the same as Ray Maynard before us had, we would have that right,” he said.

“We’re not there to run a commercial aviation business, nor does the town even want that.”

Preston added that his company is interested in purchasing the currently inactive 7,000-foot runway, which it would keep intact to “preserve the functionality of the airport” because two runways are needed to land planes in the event of shifting wind conditions.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Preston said. “We’re in this for large aerospace manufacturing contracts.”

Giglio: ‘thrilled’ but seeking more community benefits

Giglio, who initially expressed dismay that the supervisor had met with Luminati principals and negotiated the proposed terms of a runway use agreement without the knowledge or input of the town board and said she was worried about the contract giving the company the exclusive right to use the runway, said last night she is “thrilled” Luminati is “bringing aviation back to Calverton.”

But in a long soliloquy, the councilwoman discussed community benefits she’d like to see built into the runway use agreement.

“I’m looking for — to create a roadmap to success for you,” she told Preston. “I’d like to create a nexus and a partnership with you, with the county, with the state and with the federal government, to subsidize the operation and subsidize the manufacturing jobs that come to town,” Giglio said.

“I also want it to be beneficial to the residents of the town because the runway is the biggest asset, in my opinion, that the town has and I’m looking to form a nexus with you with our education system and with the school system and with BOCES, which is our community college that has an aviation facility and looking to put into the terms of the contract something having to do with internships and local jobs and where you pull your staffing from and educating and training our residents starting at the younger age,” Giglio said.

She recalled visiting Riley Avenue Elementary School where students communicated astronauts aboard the international space station in 2010. “It was amazing to see how excited these kids were to be involved and to be able to communicate with the astronauts,” she said.

“I think it’s amazing that you’re bringing history, the history of the lunar module, where the testing took place at the Calverton facility and I applaud you and I support you and I want to help you to come here and be successful,” she said.

“I just, as a town board member, have to take into consideration what the benefits to the town are and this is our biggest asset, like I said, and for a long time, for 20 years, the taxpayers have been waiting for some relief and something to finally spark at Calverton and at EPCAL and you’ve done that and I think the entire board can agree to that,” Giglio said.

“I think the fact that the terms of the contract were negotiated without the town board partaking in that process, I think it put a perception out there that you’re not welcome, but you are. Like I said, we’re excited to have you here. I’d just like to discuss with you further the terms of the contract to see if we can put a community benefit into the contract that would be beneficial to all of us,” she said.

Preston responded that he was “a little confused” by the councilwoman’s remarks. “Maybe I completely misunderstood? But in the last meeting, I thought you had said to me that the value was not in the runways. We were the ones saying the only value was in the runways and the response was that people have said that for 15 years but nothing has ever come to fruition. We replied no one has been allowed to fly or use them for their intended application,” Preston said.

“With regard for using the airport for what it was intended, you can’t get anyone better than us, because were quiet,” he said, noting noise concerns expressed by local residents when previous proposals were put forth.

“Please don’t chop up the airport,” Preston said. “Don’t cut up the runways.
Please let us do what it was intended to be done there and you’ll see massive growth and industry around this project.”

He said Luminati is also in two contract with universities totaling $1.5 million and has already set up meeting with the presidents of Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Lab to do two programs locally.

Members of Luminati’s “dream team” who also addressed the board last night included company co-founder and chief scientist Dr. Anthony Calise, who participated in the design of the Patriot missile at Raytheon Missile Systems, designed navigation and guidance systems for the U.S. Air Force and is a professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech.

“I’m very excited about the project that’s about to emerge,” Calise said. “The people we’ve attracted to this are really the best in the country.”

The public hearing record was left open until Oct. 30.

After the meeting, the supervisor said he hopes the town board will pass a resolution approving the runway use agreement with Luminati at the Nov. 4 meeting, to allow the aerospace company to go full throttle on its plans.

“It’s a very competitive industry at a very critical juncture and they need to move rapidly,” Walter said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.