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

 
 

Flight of the Drone Maker

“If you want an unmanned system, but for whatever reason you’re not comfortable flying it yourself, or want to test it in another country, they’ll come out and deploy their team of former Navy Seals, and backpack in with your group and show you how it works, and be responsible for it,” said Gregory McNeal, a professor of law at Pepperdine University specializing in public policy and security issues. “They deploy demonstration teams with the military, and they’re certain that when they’re done, you’ll say ‘I wish we had those guys back.’”

“They have blocked out the larger primes by working very closely with their customers,” said BB&T’s Devaney.

Where the DOD Meets Silicon Valley

A walk through AeroVironment’s aircraft production facility in Simi Valley, Calif., brings to mind Kelly Johnson’s famous Lockheed Skunk Works. Several of AV’s historic aircraft hang from the ceiling; others are on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. And it’s not unusual to spot a senior executive proudly wearing a badge from the AMA—not the American Medical Association, but the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of model aviation as a recognized sport as well as a recreational activity.

AV has the casual atmosphere of a Silicon Valley software company. Long before Google or Genentech empowered employees to pursue individual interests on company time, AV’s talented engineers were encouraged, even expected, to engage in pet projects.

AeroVironment employees are also expected to speak their mind whenever they believe the company’s actions are at odds with its stated values of innovation, a great workplace, trust, and technological innovation. “We have an open invitation, and really an open requirement, for employees to speak out if they think the company is operating inconsistently with any one of those four,” said Conver. “Our intent is when that happens, we’ll either change what we’re doing to comply with what we said we were going to do, or we’ll change what we’re saying to comply with how we’re operating.”

One development that prompted a company-wide forum was the introduction of the Switchblade, AV’s first lethal unmanned aircraft. Because the company’s previous models were non-weaponized and primarily used for reconnaissance, it could reasonably make the case that they were lifesaving devices.

The Switchblade, in contrast, launches from a tube, unfolds its wings, and converts into a guided missile, prompting some industry observers to dub it the kamikaze drone. The rationale behind its development was that when an intelligence and surveillance team comes under hostile fire, they have little recourse but to hunker down and wait for helicopter support, which could take hours to arrive. “Our engineers said we could solve that, and conceived of a small tube-launched vehicle that (the team) could carry around in a rucksack,” said Conver. “In that scenario, it allows them to pull that out in a minute, go find the people who are firing at them, verify it on a streaming video, [and] designate the target. And then it turns into a munition that tracks that target down, and, in the vernacular, ‘services’ that target. That seemed like a good thing to do. We also realized that it was a real digression from the kind of work we’d been doing, and had the potential to be inconsistent with some of our employees’ view of what important work is.” In one all-hands meeting where there was heated dialogue on the topic, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran told his story of having come under sniper fire and eventually leaving the field in a body bag, badly wounded and presumed dead. As he pointed out, a device like the Switchblade could have saved the lives of several of his comrades. His story quieted most objections to its development and launch.

 
 
 
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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.