From Unmanned Systems magazine: Startup seeks to leverage NASA VTOL technology
It’s a hectic, precarious phase of operations that UAS entrepreneurs know all too well – and one from which former NASA inventor Bill Fredericks’ Advanced Aircraft Company is proudly emerging as it approaches its second birthday.
The Hampton, Va.-based business, a semi-finalist in the Startup Showdown at AUVSI’s Xponential show in May, recently announced it is accepting pre-orders and will start delivery on its first aircraft — a high-endurance, hybrid-powered multi-rotor called the Hercules — by 2018.
Has it been scary? Two years of nonstop investor-hunting, exposure-seeking, plan-tweaking, and team-building, all aimed at figuring out exactly how to turn pricey technologies into profits? Fredericks answered with a chuckle.
“Is the pope Catholic? I mean, here I had a really steady government job, and I threw all of that away. It’s really exciting that we’re starting to build a little momentum.”
AAC is marketing the 28-pound Hercules to civil markets as an alternative to multi-rotor UAS that rely entirely on battery power and can fly only 20 to 30 minutes at a time. The Hercules touts a maximum continuous flight time of 3.5 hours.
“Multi-rotor operators today are only getting about three to three and a half hours’ worth of data in an eight-hour work day,” Fredericks said. “If you have an aircraft that can spend more time in the air acquiring more data and less time on the ground swapping batteries, you can generate up to a 45-percent reduction in the cost per acre.”
The Hercules will cost more than lower-endurance multi-rotors, but Fredericks estimates that a buyer working eight hours a day, five days a week, would break even on the purchase in as 11 weeks. He says early buyers are coming from precision agriculture and survey-mapping, as well as from people doing environmental surveys or setting up airborne communication systems.
Fredericks expects Hercules to generate not just revenue, but confidence in his company and its command of cutting-edge VTOL technology — enough to enable sales of a larger aircraft to a tougher customer, the U.S. Department of Defense.
The larger drone is a 10-engine, hybrid-electric called Greased Lightning that can fly up to 24 hours straight. Work as lead inventor on Greased Lightning for NASA is what inspired Fredericks to brave the private sector.
NASA “got it all the way through its flight-testing phase, and we slapped the table and said, ‘This technology is feasible,’ then put it up on the shelf and broke up the team to go work other areas, as we normally do on NASA projects,” he said. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘That’s a pretty good technology sitting there. Why don’t I consider starting a business and commercializing it?”
The biggest obstacle was the expense of putting Greased Lightning into production. So, on advice from Daniel Morris, director of the Peninsula Technology Incubator, run by the National Institute of Aerospace, he opted to “pivot” and invented the Hercules to take to market first.
“Hercules is a much less capital-intensive product,” Fredericks said.
“Getting that aircraft into production first is enabling us to start generating revenue. And then later, in successive fundraising rounds, we can tell investors, ‘Hey, we are now a post-revenue startup,’ … and go do Greased Lightning on much better investment terms.”