News Article

Technology; Uniting Low Power and Efficiency
Date: Feb 25, 1990
Source: New York Times ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: AeroVironment Inc of Arlington, VA

MONROVIA, Calif.-- Paul MacCready is best known as the creator of the Gossamer Albatross, which flew across the English Channel under human power in 1979. It was followed by other flights of low-power, high-efficiency aircraft. The inventor even developed a flying dinosaur replica, one of many exploits that have inspired admiration for Dr. MacCready's innovations over the years.

If his projects did not generate products and profits right away, that was fine with him. Dr. MacCready saw a symbolic value in the feats if they changed what people thought was possible with low-powered, efficient vehicles. He noted how Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight served as a catalyst to global airline travel.

Now, at 65, Dr. MacCready is applying the technological innovations developed in his fantasy-like projects to vehicles suited to real-world use today or in the near future.

Most recently, Dr. MacCready's small southern California company, AeroVironment Inc., was primary contractor on the General Motors Corporation's Impact, a high-performance electric car. The car, which G.M. says could be produced within a few years, grew out of lessons the companies learned building the G.M. Sunraycer, a solar-powered car that won a 1,867-mile race across Australia in 1987, averaging 41.6 miles per hour.

AeroVironment is also making the AV Pointer, a battery-powered, remote-control aircraft that carries a video camera for military surveillance operations. The technical expertise gained in creating airplanes capable of sustained flight on human or solar power contributed to the Pointer, which must be very lightweight, for portability, and able to fly with only a small, quiet electric motor.

''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,'' Dr. MacCready said. ''You can focus on extremes; when you do that you're able to go way beyond prescribed limits to new frontiers.''

Dr. MacCready became internationally known in 1977 when his Gossamer Condor made the first sustained flight by human power. Two years later the Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel. AeroVironment then turned to aircraft using photovoltaic cells to harness the sun's power; Gossamer Penguin made the first solar-powered climbing flight in 1980. In 1981 the Solar Challenger flew 163 miles from France to England at an altitude of 11,000 feet.

On Sunraycer, AeroVironment had the G.M. contract for project management, systems engineering, aerodynamics, structural design, construction and testing. G.M. executives say Sunraycer's success is what prompted development of the Impact, a svelte sports car that can out-accelerate most gas-powered vehicles, and has a range of 120 miles per battery charge.

''In the Sunraycer project, we had roughly a horsepower, roughly a hair dryer's worth of energy, so we rediscovered that you really have to pay attention to all the places where losses occur,'' said Donald L. Runkle, a G.M. vice president. Tires, bearings, wiring and aerodynamics all had to be optimized to reduce energy loss. ''That same overriding fanatical commitment to driving waste out of the vehicle is what the AeroVironment people brought to the Impact,'' he said.

Growing up in New Haven, Dr. MacCready became a serious model airplane enthusiast, and set several records flying them while in his teens. He soloed as a pilot in powered planes at age 16, and flew in the Navy flight training program in World War II. After the war, he turned to sailplanes, winning the United States National Soaring Championship three times, and the International Championship in France in 1956.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in physics from Yale University, Dr. MacCready moved to Pasadena, Calif., to attend the California Institute of Technology, where he received a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D. in aeronautics. In 1952, he founded Meteorology Research Inc., which pioneered the use of small instrumented aircraft to study storm interiors. He formed Aerovironment in 1971 to pursue projects in alternative energy, the environment and aviation.

G.M. owns 15 percent of AeroVironment. Dr. MacCready owns about 40 percent, with the balance spread among investors and employees. For its fiscal year ending in April 1990, the company projects revenues of $17 million and expects to be profitable, company executives said. It does not release specific earnings figures.

Substantial cash prizes for the human-powered flights and sponsorship for the solar flights and dinosaur replicas helped support those projects, but the bulk of AeroVironment's revenues come from its environmental and alternative-energy products and services. The company works as a consultant to industry and regulatory bodies, and sells sophisticated instruments for monitoring weather patterns and air quality.

Sunraycer and Impact were created under contract from G.M. Working with 17 G.M. divisions and five outside suppliers, the AeroVironment team built the Impact using refinements of existing technologies rather than experimenting with untried materials. For example, the 850-pound battery pack, developed by a G.M. subsidiary, is based on conventional lead-acid batteries.

''We wanted a real car now, not a potential car 10 years from now when somebody developed a better battery,'' said Dr. MacCready.

Impact's speed - it accelerates to 60 m.p.h. in 8 seconds, faster than a Mazda Miata - and long range owe much to aerodynamics. The car's coefficient of drag, a measure of how friction with the air slows it down as it moves forward, is half that of most production cars. Light-weight and highly efficient motor drive electronics also help.

Dr. MacCready doubts there will be a market for Impact unless gasoline prices rise sharply or regulations favoring non-polluting vehicles are established. But lessons in efficiency will pay off nonetheless. Simply increasing the efficiency of conventional vehicles, he said, could eliminate the need for imported oil.

One AeroVironment vehicle already reaching a market is the AV Pointer, which the company calls an ''unmanned tactical reconnaissance vehicle.'' Resembling a large model airplane, the Pointer is hand launched and climbs aloft on a small electric motor. It 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 manned aircraft.

''Nobody knew this could be done,'' Dr. MacCready said. AeroVironment has sold 15 Pointers, most to the Marines. It hopes to get the price low enough - $5,000 per aircraft, $5,000 per ground station - that the vehicle will be practical for non-military applications, too, like law enforcement and drug interdiction.>

Photo: Paul B. MacCready and the motor form G.M.'s Impact (The New York Times/Bart Bartholomew)