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 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71(originally published by Booz & Company)


Flight of the Drone Maker

AeroVironment found its first believers at Ford Motor Company and American Airlines. At Ford, the application for AV’s “smart” recharging systems was the forklifts used inside factories; for American, the target was the many support vehicles used to move aircraft and luggage around on the ground (which had been identified as a significant source of air pollution at airports). By adding a microprocessor to the battery that could communicate with the charger, AeroVironment’s systems were able to reduce charging time to minutes from hours, while increasing battery life and eliminating the need for battery rooms. The company now has more than a 90 percent share of the market for airport support-vehicle charging. It is also the charger supplier for electric cars from Nissan, Renault, BMW, Ford, and Mitsubishi.

Just as it was developing its recharging business, AV was discovering new ways to put its substantial knowledge of low-powered flight to more profitable use. Remote piloted aircraft, for most of their nearly 100-year history, had been used for the lowest of low-level missions, like target practice. But AeroVironment had a different idea: to develop an “unmanned tactical reconnaissance vehicle.” Resembling a large model airplane, the hand-launched Pointer climbs aloft on a small electric motor and carries a video camera that relays images to an observer’s monitor on the ground. It is a lower-cost and less-observable surveillance vehicle than a piloted aircraft. Subsequent models such as the Raven, the Wasp, and the Puma have offered reduced size and increased capabilities. Some are even small enough to fit in a soldier’s backpack.

Although the firm doesn’t make the large lethal drones that get headline attention, such as General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper, its diminutive hand-launched planes—the Raven, for instance, which has a wingspan of just 55 inches and weighs a little more than 4 pounds—now account for 85 percent of the unmanned aircraft purchased by the Department of Defense (DOD).

But AV has more than just military operations in its sights. The drones’ relatively low cost, compact size, and quiet operations are opening up all sorts of new possibilities. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have used ex-Army Ravens to count the number of sandhill cranes that visit the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, for example. They have been deployed to examine the drainage infrastructure at a West Virginia surface mine. They have been used to monitor forest fires. “We expect that by 2020, unmanned aircraft will be the primary platform [for data collection] for the Department of the Interior,” Mike Hutt, USGS’s unmanned aircraft project manager, told Air&Space.

AeroVironment also believes small drones will eventually be used to perform myriad other tasks for which autonomous mobility will be indispensable—such as delivering small, high-value payloads (pharmaceuticals, for instance) to areas not served well by roads, or replacing bike messengers delivering documents in congested cities. As the company’s mission statement proclaims, “The future is unmanned.”

AV’s plans for the electric car are similarly ambitious. It is already building the infrastructure required for the truly transformative vision of the electric car that MIT professor William J. Mitchell and GM executives Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns offer in their book, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010).

The next generation of electric vehicles, according to Mitchell, Borroni-Bird, and Burns, will essentially be “consumer electronics devices—networked computers on wheels—relying for their functionality far less on mechanical and structural components, and far more on electronics and software, than traditional automobiles. Thus their costs can continually be driven down, and their performance improved, in the same ways as the costs and performances of computers.”

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  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:
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