Small Businesses, Big Results: Advanced Aircraft Company
By Barrett Baker
Owner: Bill Fredericks
Founded: October 2015
Location: Peninsula Technology Incubator, 1100 Explorer Way, Suite 302S, Hampton
Number of Employees: 3
Advanced Aircraft Company builds small (less than 55 pounds), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), capable of vertical landing and takeoff maneuvers. Unlike ordinary “drones,” AAC’s UAVs are aerodynamically designed to fly at sustained speeds more than 80 miles per hour, to video and photograph linear infrastructures while in search of problems that potentially need repair.
The company got its start from a NASA Langley Research Center project that another government agency funded. They wanted an aircraft that could take off and land vertically, yet could also fly for 24 hours at a time—two diametrically opposed requirements, according to Fredericks.
“Long story short, what came out of that was the NASA Greased Lightning,” he says. “When we finished the project, it was put up on a shelf, even though we tested it and proved that what we came up with was successful. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that show that. So, I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we pull that off the shelf and move the technology forward?’”
How can it be used? One interesting application for a UAV like Greased Lightning is linear infrastructure inspection to examine things like pipelines, power lines, railroad tracks, etc.
“If you have miles of linear infrastructure that needs inspecting, you want something that’s going to go down that and inspect it very quickly in order to get a low cost per mile,” Fredericks explains. “The problem with going really fast down a linear infrastructure is that you get a lot of false positives. You see something that doesn’t look right, maybe, but you’re trucking down the line at a very quick pace. What you really want is something that can stop and take a closer look at those false positives. The Greased Lightning aircraft allows you to do exactly that. It’ll do 80 miles per hour down that pipeline or whatever infrastructure it might be, and if it spots something, it’ll slow to a hover, take a closer look, confirm or deny whether there is a fault, then if there is a fault, notify the human repair team exactly where it is, then accelerate back into windborne flight again.”
Obviously, Greased Lightning and its smaller brother, Hercules, are no ordinary drones. “There are a lot of businesses doing stuff in the drone space,” Fredericks says. “But all of the multi-rotor UAVs on the market today are battery powered. So, the longest they can fly is about 30 minutes before the battery runs dead. Our Hercules model is unique in many ways. First, it has a hybrid electric propulsion system. It has a gasoline engine, much like a weed whacker, and a generator to produce electricity. That electricity is distributed to the motors that turn the propellers. If you look at our website, you’ll see that the vehicle has fairings, that look like wings, that improve the aerodynamics. I think the technology is cool, but the reason why our customers are going to buy this is because of economics. Obviously, our aircraft is going to cost a lot more than a similar battery-powered multi-rotor vehicle. However, our buyers generate revenue proportionately to the amount of area they can image. If you can photograph more area in any given day, they’re generating more revenue for the same costs. For our customers, the resulting cost per acre can go down by as much as 45 percent, which is really phenomenal for a service industry.”
Even though AAC is still in the pre-revenue phase, Fredericks shares this advice for anyone looking to start a small business. “Starting a business is a really big time commitment. So, save up your energy, and when you’re ready to hit the market, be ready to hit the ground running, and run really hard.”
Learn more at AdvancedAircraftCompany.com.