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Published: May 28, 2013
 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71

 
 

Flight of the Drone Maker

Three years later, the same team produced the Gossamer Albatross, which became the first human-powered aircraft to fly across the English Channel, capturing a second Kremer prize.

The Snaking Path of Commercialization

Having conquered human-powered flight, the AeroVironment team set its airborne sights even higher—on harnessing the power of the sun. For the flight of the Solar Challenger, which in July 1981 flew the 165-mile distance from Paris to London under solar power at an altitude of 11,000 feet, AV had the sponsorship of DuPont, which manufactured the Mylar material used to skin the fuselage and wings.

But the company’s market focus developed in fits and starts, and the link between its achievements and commercially viable products was still often tenuous. Indeed, a flapping-wing replica of a pterodactyl, produced for an Imax movie about creatures in flight, remained typical of projects the group took on—it was done as much for the sheer challenge and pleasure of producing cool things that fly as for commercial considerations.

“There is a value in some way-out impractical projects that are done for prizes, symbolism, or the fun of it, where you don’t have to worry about production,” MacCready told this reporter in 1990. “You can focus on extremes; when you do that you’re able to go way beyond prescribed limits to new frontiers.”

MacCready and his team’s pie-in-the-sky thinking came more firmly down to earth with the Sunraycer, a solar-powered race car commissioned by General Motors (GM). Infused with the expertise that AeroVironment had developed in solar flight, the Sunraycer won first place in a 1,867-mile race across Australia in 1987, with an average speed of 42 miles per hour. While GM was still basking in its branded glory, MacCready persuaded the company to let his team develop a prototype of an electric car that could possibly go into production.

GM showed the barely finished car, initially dubbed the Impact, at the January 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. It was such a hit that by Earth Day, three months later, the company had decided to manufacture it under the production name EV1. In December 1996, GM provided a limited launch of the pure electric car for lease only. Powered by lead-acid batteries, the first-generation EV1 could travel 70 to 100 miles before recharging. (A later version, using nickel-metal hydride cells, could travel up to 120 miles.) But then a shift in policy intervened: The California Air Resources Board agreed to delay implementation of the first phase of a zero-emissions vehicle mandate that had been scheduled to go into effect in 1998, and whatever momentum had been building at GM for the EV1 died.

General Motors was inconsistent in its support for the EV1, and the oil companies did their best to undermine electric car development altogether. As shown in the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), when the automobile and oil industries joined forces to block the zero-emissions mandate, they sacrificed the prototype electric vehicles. Despite candlelight vigils by EV1 owners, GM recalled its leased cars and crushed all but a few, which were donated—minus their drivetrains—to museums. That decision left AeroVironment with some painful lessons about the capricious effects of public policy and corporate influence, but also with some hard-won knowledge about electric vehicles, batteries, and fast-charging equipment.

The company now set out to find fresh commercial opportunities, and it wasn’t long before it succeeded—this time in the industrial sector. “We found out there was an installed base of over 1 million forklifts that were conventionally charging because everybody ‘knew’ you couldn’t fast-charge batteries without destroying them,” CEO and chairman Conver recalled. (Handpicked by MacCready, Conver has served as president since 1991, chief executive since 1993, and a member of the board of directors since 1988.) This meant maintaining a huge “battery room,” with three batteries for each vehicle, so two could always be charging while one was in use. “We convinced the industrial market that fast-charging wouldn’t destroy their batteries and could even increase their life.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Paul Ciotti, More with Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight (Encounter Books, 2002): A reporter’s take on the story of human-powered flight and the characters involved in it, along with the MacCready team’s accomplishments in solar-powered aircraft and flapping-wing ornithopters, including a life-sized pterodactyl replica.
  2. Scott Corwin and Rob Norton, “The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns,” s+b, Autumn 2010: More insights from the coauthor of Reinventing the Automobile.
  3. Morton Grosser, Gossamer Odyssey: The Triumph of Human-Powered Flight (Houghton Mifflin, 1981): An insider’s account of the development of human-powered flight, culminating in the launches of the Gossamer Condor and the Gossamer Albatross.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at: strategy-business.com/innovation.
 
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