As an Inventor over the last 20 years I have developed a lot of interesting products. Every project is different, some coming together quickly but most requiring a long process of iterative prototyping and experimentation.
The genesis of many great innovations can be the sudden availability of new technologies, components or materials that allow breakthroughs previously too impractical or expensive to enable viable product solutions. Some examples of my early successes were a combination of timing, opportunity and a new generation of battery chemistry.
In the late 1990s the only mass market flying toys available were rubber band powered balsa wood planes and some very basic offerings by Estes. Outside of the Hobby Grade market remotely controlled flying toys did not really exist.
In early 2000 I began working as an inventor for Rehkemper I.D. in Chicago. Rehkemper was helping a young Spinmaster develop some of their first flying toys. One of these early products was the E-charger. E-chargers were tiny uncontrolled planes with a capacitor-powered motor and flat, die-cut foam wings. They really did not fly very well but the electric motors were a step up from rubber band powered planes. I was asked one day to develop a twin engine E-charger for Spinmaster. Motors are often the most expensive component in a toy so doubling this component without a real performance gain seemed wasteful. I began looking at what enhancements or innovations could be achieved to make the most of a second motor.
The result of this exercise was the Intruder. The Intruder was a twin-engine plane that used a novel technique of pulse modulated thrust vectoring to steer the plane using only its twin propellers. This allowed for a small, radio controlled plane without the cost and complexity of servos.
Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) Batteries had been improving over the years and at this time cells were available in compact form factors with improved performance. Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMh) cells were just starting to show up with even higher energy densities.
After the breakout success of the Intruder, the Rehkemper team began early development of the first micro indoors helicopter concepts. These concepts would not have been viable with the motors and batteries from a decade earlier. The huge success of products like the Havoc Helicopter forever changed the toy landscape which now sees small, multi rotor drones across many price points.
Leveraging newer and improved technologies to leap forward in product innovation is a good formula for breaking new ground.
In 2015, a company that produced carbon nanotubes used to enhance carbon fiber asked if I could design a carbon fiber paper airplane. They wanted the carbon fiber plane as a demonstrator of their technology, which doubled the durability of normal carbon fiber. When I looked hard at what was available in state of the art technology to make this “Paper Airplane” something special, what I found was pretty amazing. I found a Bluetooth Module that could remotely fly the plane via smart phone up to 80 yards away, weighed less than 2 grams and barely used 3 volts. I was able to source an HD video camera smaller than a postage stamp and a gum sized lithium Ion battery that could power 2 high output motors for 9 minutes. After a lot of R&D in carbon fiber production methods, what seemed impossible became a reality in the Carbon Flyer.
The Carbon Flyer is a smartphone-controlled aircraft that weighs only 60 grams, and can withstand direct impacts with hard surfaces without sustaining damage.
If there is one thing I have learned whenever given an opportunity to design something new, it’s that leveraging the latest technology in a new way may allow skipping ahead to a more advanced and distant future.