An aerospace venture started by the founders of Boeing’s Insitu business unit just raised fresh cash as the company ramps up development of its unmanned aircraft.
Aerovel was started in 2006 by Tad McGeer and Andy von Flotow, who were the founders of Insitu, an unmanned aerial system developer. Aerovel’s plant is about 500 meters, as the drone flies, from Boeing’s Insitu plant in the Columbia River Gorge town of Bingen, Wash.
With McGeer as CEO and von Flotow as chairman, the two Stanford classmates built Insitu into a $20 million-a-year business before leaving in 2005. (Boeing would later buy Insitu for a reported $400 million.)
Today, Aerovel is developing a new drone it calls the Flexrotor, which is designed to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, then transition into horizontal flight using wings for lift, like an airplane. Aerovel says the Flexrotor can stay aloft for up to 32 hours — a record for drones in its class — providing overhead surveillance for military, law enforcement or other civilian uses.
The company is in a competitive but growing market. Analysts at the Teal Group in Arlington, Va., project the total drone market — from backyard quadcopters to missile-carrying attack drones — to grow from $11 billion a year to more than $30 billion this decade.
Investors are looking for opportunities. This week, California-based Skydio raised a $170 million round that valued the company at $1 billion. Skydio builds a hand-launched mini drone, compared to Aerovel’s specialized FlexRotor. It’s smaller, cheaper and easier to fly, but doesn’t have nearly the flight range, endurance or data-transmission capability.
Military spending for unmanned vehicles will continue to grow modestly, according to Teal. The FlexRotor’s niche — Small Tactical UAVs — is expected to be about a $1 billion market over the decade, with most being sold to U.S. allies who saw how American forces used them in Asia and the Middle East.
Civilian drone use is expected to take off, however. That includes purchases by governments for law enforcement and anti-smuggling patrols at sea. (Aerovel touts the FlexRotor’s potential use for this, as well as in coordinating responses to forest fires.) Teal expects sales in that narrow segment to triple by 2030, from $137 million to $438 million a year.
Aerovel has flown the Flexrotor from ships and over three oceans, and at sites ranging from the Arctic Ocean to Afghanistan. The drone is capable of taking off and landing autonomously, the company says.
In January, the company reported that it had successfully put the Flexrotor through a series of tests designed for the U.S. Special Operations Command to prove its durability through 150 cycles of take-offs and landings. The tests showed that a team of two people can set up and launch two of the drones from a small clearing within a half-hour. The drone can be ready to take off again within three minutes of landing, and requires only 20 minutes to pack up and leave, the company said.
Also in January, Aerovel announced it had hired Ali Dian, a former vice president of business development for aerospace defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corp., to be its interim CEO.
Dian will focus on the management of day-to-day operations and connecting with civil and military customers, while McGeer, the founding CEO, continues as the company’s chief technology officer, “focusing on the continued technical excellence of the Aerovel Flexrotor as well as any future derivatives,” the company said in an announcement.
Von Flotow continues as chairman and technology advisor for Aerovel. He also is founder and president of Hood Technology, which builds imaging sensors used on drones and airplanes, among other products.