It’s a Tuesday afternoon at a small, radio control modeler’s airport near Los Angeles, and the guy bent over his model Messerschmitt Me-109 looks serious. After a lot of fiddling, he squeezes gasoline into the little piston engine and connects his toolbox-cum-battery pack to the airplane. She’s a beauty: deep forest green, meticulous iron crosses on fuselage and wings. “Flies for 16 minutes before
she runs out of fuel,” he boasts. Finally, the engine fires up, screaming so loudly the sound hurts my teeth. The Me-109 zips down the tarmac and wings skyward, a perfect imitation of the real thing.
“Takes 30 hours of stick time before you can do that,” grunts Dave
Ganzer, plunking two Pelican cases the size of briefcases on a picnic table. He pops the cases open and in 60 seconds snaps together a gray airplane with a four-foot wingspan. It’s unmarked, dirty, unimpressive. Ganzer’s sidekick, Gabriel Torres, opens a third case, raises a six-foot-high antenna and connects a laptop computer to the case.
Torres: “Okay, we’ve got seven satellites.”
“Go fly with the birds.”
Ganzer hits a switch and the prop whines. He throws the plane skyward. No squeezing gasoline from a little bottle, no taxiing, away it flies. At 100 feet, Raven, as it’s called, is silent, its whisper-quiet electric motor pulling it higher into the sky. The Me-109 is doing loops and rolls overhead while the Raven is simply gone, beaming back to the TV screen on Ganzer’s controller a bird’s-eye view of houses and driveways 500 feet below. The modeler is beside himself. “That must be spy stuff, right?” he says, as his noisy plane runs out of fuel and sputters back in.
Besides their model-like appearance, Raven and the Me-109 have about as much in common as a Formula 1 racecar and a go-kart. The Me-109 is a hobbyist’s toy. Raven is indeed spy stuff–a nearly silent, lithium-sulfur- dioxide-battery-powered mini unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototype that AeroVironment developed for the U.S. Army. It’s half the size of the company’s Pointer UAV, which in 1988 became the first portable UAV that the U.S. military deployed, yet it’s crammed with features that would tantalize any modeler: sophisticated infrared cameras and autopilot, an hour of flying time and a seven-mile range on a single battery charge. It takes but a few minutes of training to operate, and it needs no runway to land. Ganzer presses a button, and Raven returns automatically. It descends to a few feet above its launch point, stalls, and splats ungracefully to the ground in a hail of scattering Kevlar pieces–a technique engineered to disperse the energy of the landing–that can be quickly snapped back together for another flight. You can, in other words, launch and recover this aircraft in the mountains of Afghanistan or on a street corner in Baghdad on a moonless night. Size notwithstanding, its power, range, lightweight quality, brainpower and surveillance capabilities make it as cutting edge an airplane in its way as the new F-22 Raptor jet fighter.
Yet as serious a military vehicle as it is, Raven’s lineage harkens straight back to hobbyist aircraft like the Me-109. Raven’s creator isn’t a defense juggernaut like Boeing or Northrop Grumman; it’s a small company whose roots lie in the world’s first human-
powered airplanes and solar-powered cars and planes, in flying, flapping pterodactyls and toy model airplanes. For the past 32 years, Aero-Vironment and its founder, Paul MacCready, have pursued energy efficiency and the credo of doing more with less as fervently as big companies have sought utilitarian high performance. And AeroVironment has done it in part by designing vehicles that seem fun and whimsical and anything but practical. The result isn’t a faltering shop of mad scientists but a
profitable powerhouse of 220 engineers and scientists whose aircraft have shattered aviation records for more than two decades without letup and have put AeroVironment in the forefront of the rush to create working mini and micro UAVs for the nation’s military.
“The human-powered vehicles and the
pterodactyls were learning devices,” says Martyn Cowley, a 20-plus-year veteran of Aero-
Vironment. “They had no inherent value, but we immersed ourselves in their technical problems. It’s the knowledge we get from them that keeps the company moving in new directions.” Or, as MacCready puts it, “If you play with toy airplanes you get expertise in things that are important.”
At 77, MacCready still comes to his office in Monrovia, California, every day. He is a slight man with white hair, and today he’s dressed in a green wool blazer, a starched button-down shirt, gray slacks and black sneakers. He speaks softly, seriously, and he barely smiles, but there is something disarmingly youthful about him. It’s apparent in the way he tends to prop his sneakered feet on the coffee table like a rebellious teenager and in the way his mind darts like a pinball lighting up targets; one moment he’s talking about a human exoskeleton that will enable hikers to carry 100-pound backpacks effortlessly, the next about using UAVs to deliver packages in traffic-clogged cities. “Ninety percent of insects use flight at some time in their lives,” he says, “so we should too.”
Not surprisingly, given his company’s trajectory, it was on model airplanes and gliders that Paul MacCready first showed his genius. A scrawny, dyslexic kid who spent long hours contemplating the flight of birds and insects, he broke seven national model airplane records by the time he was 14. At Yale he turned to full-size gliders, buying his first in 1945 for $500. Models and gliders bore an essential similarity in MacCready’s mind: Both were expressions of pure flight in which, with a little creativity, he says, “vehicle design leaps ahead as its own reward.” In
college, MacCready’s soaring mentors challenged him to do “more research and to be quantitative about what I was thinking.” It’s an approach that has never left him. As would happen throughout his career, the intellectual pursuit of his apparently unproductive youthful passion paid off in concrete and unexpected ways. The shy anti-jock became the world’s best soarer, breaking altitude and distance records on his way to winning the National Soaring Championships three times and the internationals in France in 1956. And soaring turned him into a scientist. He received his Ph.D. in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology and then created a company that researched atmospheric turbulence, cloud seeding and weather modification for the U.S. government. Even today, he says, “the dividing line between AeroVironment aviation projects and soaring is blurred. All our projects, from the six-inch UAV to the 247-foot solar aircraft, are based on efficiency, which is the essence of sailplanes and models.”
Then came the Kremer Prize. For nearly two decades, scientists had been struggling to win a 50,000 prize, offered by the British industrialist Henry Kremer, for the first sustained human-powered flight. One day in 1976, MacCready realized the pound was trading for two U.S. dollars. And he’d co-signed a $100,000 loan for a relative’s business that had unexpectedly come due when the business failed. “A team in Britain had been working on very sophisticated plans, and I tried to find some ingenious way,” MacCready says, “but all I came up with were the same ideas they had.” He gave up until he undertook a half-game, half-research project with his sons while driving cross-country one summer. By estimating the bank angle of the wings of soaring birds and counting the seconds it took them to complete a circle, he discovered you could calculate their lift. “That gave me a different avenue–I realized if you tripled the wingspan and cord [wing width] of a hang glider without increasing its weight, you could reduce the horsepower by a factor of three. All you’d need was 0.4 horsepower, which a good cyclist could deliver.” Bingo, the puzzle was all but solved. Over weekends with friends and his sons, MacCready perfected the Gossamer Condor, an ungainly and fragile vehicle with a 90-foot wingspan covered in Mylar
sixteen-thousandths of an inch thick. It weighed just 70 pounds and flew at the speed of a walk.
After expenses, however, the $100,000 MacCready won wasn’t enough. But then Kremer doubled the amount for the first human-
powered crossing of the English Channel. “He thought it would take another 18 years,” says MacCready, who merely cleaned up the Condor’s aerodynamics. In 1979, cyclist Bryan Allen flew the Gossamer Albatross across the channel in 2 hours 49 minutes. The debt was paid.
More important, MacCready now knew more than anyone about slow, efficient flight. Solving the problem of human-powered flight made solar-powered flight seem possible, and in 1981 the Solar Challenger, smaller than the Condor but similar-looking, flew 163 miles from Paris to England at 11,000 feet on nothing but sunshine.
The next year MacCready won a Lindbergh Award, which recognizes individuals who balance technological achievement and environmental preservation. Preparing his acceptance speech, he thought more deeply about what he’d been doing and why. “In the last years of his life Lindbergh was a devoted environmentalist,” MacCready says. “In Kenya he was watching a hawk soar, and he asked himself which he’d rather live in–a world with airplanes and no birds or with birds and no airplanes. He was an aviator but he picked the birds.” Lindbergh’s epiphany has guided the company ever since. “I’m more interested in a world that works than what sells. We make strange devices that do more with less.”
Not that such a focus has hurt sales. Partnering with General Motors, AeroVironment designed a solar-powered car for a 1,867-mile race across Australia in 1987. The Sunraycer beat every other car by two days. Impressed, GM asked MacCready to create an electric car, which eventually became the revolutionary EV-1. For an IMAX film, AeroVironment built an 18-foot mechanized pterodactyl. Making the unstable bird fly from the thrust of flapping wings forced the company to develop a sophisticated autopilot system; the concept would eventually become the heart of its mini UAVs. “The electronics were a complex job and came at a time when we didn’t have a lot of electronics wizards,” says MacCready. “Doing it built up our muscles in that area.”
Efficient airplanes and cars, batteries and battery packs, miniature electronics and sophisticated flight control mechanisms–MacCready sees them all as part of the same thing, one long continuum dating back to squeezing longer flights out of model airplanes and gliders. “We don’t see any difference between aviation and stuff on the ground,” he says. “Airplanes, boats, cars–they each move through a fluid, and whether it’s on the ground or in the air doesn’t matter. But we’re the only group I know of who considers them all one entity.”
There is only one Paul MacCready, but he has institutionalized himself and his quest for creative thinking
by hiring a shopful of passionate modelers, hang gliders and soarers. He lets them use AeroVironment’s offices and shops for whatever they want during off-hours, and then turns them loose on projects that sometimes seem anything but practical. The process generates intellectual capital in uncharted areas, which often can be turned into something practical and profitable. The company’s Helios aircraft, a 247-foot solar-powered flying wing weighing a mere 1,577 pounds and developed for NASA, is a direct descendant of gliders and
human- and solar-powered airplanes. The efficient use of solar cells to power its tiny motors; the design of light wings that are stable at slow speeds; aerodynamically efficient propellers–everything that was discovered and refined
on the human-powered and solar-powered
vehicles–found its way into Helios. In 2001, it flew to an altitude of 96,863 feet, breaking the nonrocket-powered altitude record held by the
SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The craft, equipped with fuel cells for nighttime power, could one day orbit 65,000 feet over a city for six months; AeroVironment sees it as an inexpensive alternative to satellites and has spun off a new company, SkyTower, to market it.
“We’re always looking for something that’s hard to do and has never been done before,” says Bart Hibbs, who joined AeroVironment fresh from Caltech in 1977. Hibbs has 6-inch-long Viking-like copper bracelets on his wrists and an office filled with python skins. “There aren’t many other people trying to create solar-powered aircraft,” he says, spinning a levitating magnet on his desk. “It’s a technical challenge and it keeps you at the edge and it’s an easy way to stay away from the competition. And you don’t know where it will eventually lead.”
Nor is it known when something odd and impractical that AeroVironment has a wealth of experience with might suddenly be in demand, such as Lilliputian unmanned aerial vehicles. Although not unlike sophisticated models in appearance, they are far more complex. The Me-109 flies for 16 minutes and must be controlled within a skilled operator’s line of sight. It has neither the range nor the payload to carry cameras or extra fuel or to loiter over a battlefield beyond the next hill. A military micro UAV, on the other hand, has to be small enough and simple enough for one relatively untrained soldier to carry and operate but still have the range to fly for an hour or two carrying a camera, autopilot, GPS, gyro and avionics. But you can’t just scale down a big airplane, because the smaller you make it the more inefficient it becomes. The wings on a six-inch Cessna 172, for example, wouldn’t provide enough lift to get it airborne, and its propeller would be so inefficient that 50 percent of its power would simply dissipate into thin air.
Making a tiny airplane fly far and long on little power leads smack to the heart of Aero-Vironment’s expertise in doing more with less. Besides Raven and its older brother Pointer, AeroVironment has developed the Black Widow, the world’s first 6-inch micro UAV; cannon-fired 10-inch-long UAVs; Dragon Eye, a twin-motor snap-together Raven-like UAV for the U.S. Marine Corps; Martian gliders; and tiny, wing-flapping ornithopters.
“Check this out,” says Matt Keennon, a passionate modeler who created the 6-inch Black Widow. He rolls across his cubicle to grab a foot-long battery-powered plastic helicopter connected by a cord to a little controller. “I just got this today,” he says. The helo whirs and suddenly it’s hovering in the middle of his workshop. “For an off-the-shelf toy, it’s really good.”
What appear to be dental tools cover his desk, as does a microscope and a fleet of radio-controlled model airplanes. Keennon lands
the helo gently on the carpet and grabs a craft about the same size and shape as a coffee
saucer, a 2-inch propeller on one end, three little vertical stabilizers aft, a camera the size of a pencil eraser peering through a window–the Black Widow. “DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] wanted us to make a 6-inch UAV that weighed only 3 ounces,” he says, “but it sounded impossible.”
It took five years and $2 million, but Keennon built a plane nearly as light as a feather that flies for 30 minutes while beaming live TV. Like Pointer and Raven, the craft is piloted by a ground-based pilot navigating through a video monitor. “It’s just as if you’re floating in a balloon,” he says. Packed in its tiny innards are a battery, compass, gyroscope, computer, autopilot and a host of sensors. It holds heading, altitude and airspeed automatically. To maximize lift, it’s almost all wing. Its propeller, the result of hundreds of hours of computer and wind tunnel work, is nearly as efficient as a full-size one, allowing it to fly long distances while sipping power with the parsimony of a monk. “It was extremely difficult because the avionics didn’t exist,” Keennon says. “And there was almost no published data on the aerodynamics of such a small plane. But from the human-powered and solar-powered aircraft and pterodactyl, we had a huge amount of
intellectual property. We could never have created it in a vacuum.” Still, Black Widow needs work before it can spot al Qaeda guerrillas over the next ridge. “It needs to be more rugged before it’s 100 percent reliable,” says Keennon, “and it’s still too hard to operate.”
“But look at this!” he says, scooping up an eight-inch-long thing made from wire and clear plastic. “Our flapping Microbat”–a radio-controlled UAV with bird-like flapping wings for thrust and lift and a conventional rudder for turning, again developed for DARPA to test the viability of
this kind of UAV flight. “As you get small, flapping wings make sense,” he says. “A big condor has to run to take off and fly in thermals to stay up. But look at gnats and flies. You see swarms of ’em hanging out in space. They’re beating the hell out of the air, but they have no problems staying up and they can do it all day. We achieved 25-minute electrically powered flapping wing flight with this and that’s astounding. But,” he says, shaking his head and pointing to a dead cicada and butterfly hanging by a thread from the ceiling, “it’s still so crude compared to that cicada.” He pauses and stares at them for a moment. “For their size and the job they do, they’re elegantly perfect,” he says, powering up the helo again for a midoffice flight. “I keep ’em up there for inspiration.”
Later MacCready and I meet up for lunch, and as we tool down the road in his electric Honda–a gift from the manufacturer–I ask him how he had been able to figure out how to make a human-powered airplane fly when no one else could. “It was only when I was on that vacation and found myself daydreaming and looking at birds that it came to me,” he says in the strangely silent car. “After you do it, it just seems so straightforward and you wonder why you never looked at it that way before. But it only made sense when the circumstances gave me an opportunity to look at the problem from a different perspective. And you have to remember, a new perspective can be more important than a new product.”
Carl Hoffman, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is the author of Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II.