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


Flight of the Drone Maker

Even as AV pursues new markets for its existing drones, its research and development team is pushing the unmanned aircraft design envelope with drones both really big and extremely small. Two current projects in particular evoke the legacy of Paul MacCready while pointing the way to an exciting future.

On the big side, AeroVironment’s Global Observer calls to mind the company’s early experiments in human-powered and solar-powered flight. With a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 767 and a weight roughly equivalent to a typical SUV’s, the liquid hydrogen–powered plane is designed to stay aloft for seven days at up to 65,000 feet. The idea is that the Global Observer could fill a gap between the capabilities of observation and communications satellites operating at low Earth orbit and the flexibility of airplanes flying in the lower atmosphere. One function would be as an alternative to cell-phone towers, but with a much greater range.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV), which mimics a hummingbird in its size and flight characteristics. It can hover in place and fly backward and forward in restrictive areas, such as inside a building, that are inaccessible to conventional drones, at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. It calls to mind flapping-wing ornithopters and pterodactyls—such as the one MacCready’s team built years ago—but actually uses the wing motion of real hummingbirds, a motion that has never been successfully modeled before. The NAV beats its tiny wings a remarkable 70 times per second, with the tips nearly touching, like a hummingbird, but unlike any other winged creature.

Either or both of these projects could reach the market within a few years. “We look at opportunities in a different way based on where they are in a continuum from idea to market launch, and getting through the wickets gets (increasingly) data-based and ROI-driven as you move from a zero point of ‘what about this idea,’ to a 10 point of ‘let’s launch this in the market,’” Conver said. “By the time we are allocating significant resources, whether human or capital, we’re getting more and more rigorous about the market and the value proposition and our ability to support that adoption.”

That’s systems thinking in full, and a long trip into the future for a company that has already made a lot of history.  

Factors beyond Their Control

As with all technological change (remember the Segway?), the evolution of infrastructure and policy is highly uncertain. In this case, the way that commercial drones and electric vehicles evolve depends on public policy, market acceptance, and many other factors beyond the direct control and influence of AeroVironment or any other single company.

Although the electric car market is growing rapidly, just 10,000 battery-only electric vehicles (BEVs) were sold in the United States last year—and those sales were stimulated in part by a US$7,500 federal tax credit on each vehicle. Were electric car sales to grow to 1 million units, that would be a $7.5 billion cost to taxpayers, which is clearly not sustainable. For the industry to be viable without subsidies, battery prices would need to come down and capacity would need to go up.

Safety regulations also loom large. The cars hypothesized in Reinventing the Automobile are smaller and lighter than today’s average auto, and they achieve safety goals partly through robotics. They can in some cases drive themselves, and they are designed to avoid crashes in the first place, not to provide a rolling fortress. If autonomous autos are to share the roads with conventional vehicles in any number, new regulations will be essential. The autos’ safety in traffic must be proven, and the kinds of bugs that exist in software (where the only negative effect of a failure is the need to reboot) must be eliminated (see “The Next Autonomous Car Is a Truck,” by Peter Conway, s+b, Summer 2013).

Next, mass-market penetration by electric cars is predicated upon fossil fuel costs remaining high. If fracking eventually produces volumes of new oil at attractive prices, or if hydrogen and natural gas costs come down more rapidly than anticipated, the fully electric car could be sidelined.

And although drone aircraft are an increasingly common, albeit controversial, feature in foreign war theaters, their appearance in domestic skies has prompted a multiyear policymaking effort by the Federal Aviation Administration and may require involvement from the Federal Communications Commission as well. Most unmanned aircraft are actually piloted remotely by human beings, but AeroVironment’s systems also have substantial autonomous capability, such as the ability to fly a preprogrammed GPS course. Both Boeing and Airbus have talked about unmanned cargo aircraft, and jetliners have actually been capable of autonomous takeoffs and landings since Lockheed’s L-1011 was introduced in 1970. But that doesn’t mean public sentiment or policy is ready for large fleets of robotic planes.

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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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