It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superdrone!
The future of flight is unmanned, and that can be a good thing for all of us, say some in the business of making the pilotless aircraft known as drones.
By Bettijane Levine 11/08/2012
The adorable toy-like avian you see here is actually an unmanned aircraft, known to most of us as a drone. It weighs 19 grams, less than an AA battery. Painted to look like a hummingbird, it has two flapping wings that provide propulsion and control. It can hover, swoop and climb, while carrying its own battery and a tiny wireless camera to transmit video. It can dart in and out of windows and doors — and we won’t even guess its potential uses. Right now it’s simply a “nanotechnology demonstrator” developed for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency of the U.S. government.
We bring you this bit of aeronautical information because this is our business issue, and the Nano Hummingbird was born right here in our happy valley at AeroVironment in Monrovia — currently the country’s largest producer of drones and one of most interesting businesses around. Dr. Paul MacCready, AeroVironment’s founder in 1971 and its leader until his death in 2007, was one of aviation’s most original thinkers and one of Pasadena’s most illustrious residents. His wife, Judy, still lives here.
Dr. MacCready, named one of the 20th century’s 100 “greatest minds” by Time magazine, is known worldwide as a visionary whose untethered imagination helped lead to such inventions as the electric car and the drone. Obsessed with aerodynamics from childhood, he studied the flight of birds, butterflies, vultures and moths. Armed with a B.S. in physics from Yale, he segued into gliders. He designed them, flew them, won multiple soaring contests and in 1956 was the first American to become International Soaring Champion. Along the way, he invented the airspeed selector still used by glider pilots worldwide to determine optimum flight speed, now known as the MacCready Speed.
That was just the start of many firsts comprising MacCready’s saga. He earned a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Caltech in 1952, then founded a meteorology research firm that became a leader in weather modification and atmospheric research. MacCready pioneered the use of small aircraft (which he piloted himself) to study storm interiors. He became known as “the father of human-powered flight” after founding AeroVironment, where he designed the first heavier-than-air craft to be powered solely by human muscle — i.e., a man pedaling the plane as if it were a bicycle. This was the first human-powered craft ever to cross the English Channel.
Such a device may seem impractical, but then MacCready was not a practical man. In his obituary, The New York Times wrote, “MacCready believed daydreaming was his most productive activity. Practical results mattered little to him, although many of his breakthroughs led to practical expression.” Indeed, they did. Every one of his creations taught him more about the theory and practice of flight and alternative energy transport. His human-powered plane led to a solar-powered plane, which led to a solar-powered car, which led to an electric automobile and then to the nanotech hummingbird spy drone that weighs less than a newborn baby. Each “impractical” success became a platform for something practical, although he could not have predicted that. He enjoyed the journey, ignored the destination (although his Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered plane to accomplish sustained flight, made a final “landing” at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum).
MacCready’s solar-powered plane was the first to fly powered solely by sunbeams. Decades ahead of the curve, he had decided to help demonstrate the benefits of photo-voltaic cells as a potential source of non-polluting, renewable energy for homes and industry. Later, with NASA support, he built an unmanned solar-powered plane that could climb to 96,358 feet — more than two miles higher than any plane had ever sustained level flight. And in 1985, MacCready proposed to General Motors the creation of a battery-operated automobile according to his design. The company released it in 1990 as the Impact, which led to their further collaboration on the EV-1, the first mass-produced electric car from a major automaker.
Today, the firm he founded focuses on two principal projects — infrastructure for electric vehicles and drones. The company’s newest rapid-charging system for electric cars can fully recharge an automobile in less than 30 minutes, says Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing strategy at AeroVironment. “We’ve already installed them in Houston and Dallas and along Interstate 5 in Washington and Oregon,” Gitlin says.
The biggest part of the business right now is drones, Gitlin says, although he would never use the D-word. “We don’t make drones. We make unmanned aircraft systems. Only the media uses the word ‘drone,’” Gitlin explains. But MacCready himself did, in fact, use the word “drone” in a talk accessible on the Internet, in which he described the firm’s development of unmanned aircraft.
AeroVironment has produced about 85 percent of the 7,500 unmanned aircraft used today by the U.S. military, Gitlin says. The firm, which went public in 2007, produces six unmanned aircraft models, ranging in size from one to 13 pounds, most of which carry cameras rather than weapons. These can fly from just a few hundred feet off the ground to about 10,000 feet above sea level.
And not all customers are military. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently purchased AeroVironment’s Puma model to monitor wildlife and other ecological concerns, Gitlin says. “The U.S. Geological Survey uses our four-pound Raven quite extensively for such things as monitoring wildlife, soil erosion along rivers, inspecting fences on public land,” he adds. (Both the Puma and Raven are portable and silent. They can be hand-launched and can operate autonomously. Both carry infra-red and electro-optic cameras along with other equipment. The Puma, which can land on ground or water, weighs 13 pounds. The Raven comes in at 4.8 pounds and delivers real-time imagery day or night.)
In fact, there seems to be no end to the beneficial possibilities of these little craft in civilian life. They transmit precise and critical information in real time and can be equipped with sensors to detect or monitor radiation and chemicals. They can track criminals, find lost children and fallen hikers. They can give early warnings and close-ups on floods, hurricanes and other disasters. And they can fly where piloted planes cannot. For example, an unmanned aircraft made by Honeywell was used at Fukushima to help get radiation readings and images of Japan’s recent nuclear disaster.
Three of AeroVironment’s unmanned aircraft models can be hand-launched by an individual as easily as you’d fly a kite or a child’s model airplane. Most have handheld controls with a full color screen and buttons, much like a video game, Gitlin says. It’s understandable that police and fire departments would like to investigate the use of these craft. And some day, unmanned aircraft may be considered essential in private industry, for such tasks as monitoring livestock and agricultural property. Although AeroVironment is one success story, there are dozens of other entrants now in the field.
Right now, federal restrictions limit the use of unmanned aircraft for non-military purposes. “But the government’s latest reauthorization bill to fund the FAA had a requirement to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by 2015,” Gitlin says.
It’s clear that drones (oops, unmanned aircraft) may one day benefit humanity in ways that would make MacCready very proud. He was a passionate environmentalist, says his son, Parker MacCready, a physical oceanographer and professor at the University of Washington. And, in a written memorial tribute to MacCready from a former colleague, Catherine Mohr, he was remembered thusly: “I was lucky to work with Paul for nine years… I learned an awful lot about youthful idealism from a man so many years my senior. Paul believed in education and the power of ideas to inspire. He was also very afraid that mankind’s ability to effect change far exceeded our collective understanding of the consequences.” She concluded that all who wish to honor MacCready’s legacy should “resist the creeping cynicism that leads us to abandon what we believe is right for what we believe is possible.”