AeroVironment Makes EV Charging Stations, and Military Drones

By · November 27, 2012

AeroVironment Drone

In addition to charging stations, AeroVironment also manufactures unmanned drones for the U.S. Military.

This month, AeroVironment announced that it had installed more than 10,000 level 2 charging units in the United States. The company has been one of the leading charging equipment manufacturers, thanks in part to deals it has in place with carmakers like Nissan and BMW. But charging stations aren’t AeroVironment’s primary source of revenue, nor did it start out in the plug-in car charging business.

AeroVironment’s history dates back to 1971, when it was founded by aeronautics engineer Paul MacCready, who at the time was focused on designing low-power aircraft. In 1977, MacCready won the Kremar Prize for designing the first human-powered airplane, the Gossamer Condor, followed in 1979 by the Gossamer Penguin, which was capable of flying on solar power alone.

Today, AeroVironment’s biggest business comes from government and military contracts for drone aircraft, a sector that is predicted to continue its robust growth as the government expands its use of drones on the battlefield and at home.

The company is currently under contract to produce its Switchblade unmanned aerial vehicle for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The Switchblade is a “kamikaze” style drone capable of locating and then flying into targets carrying a small warhead. Aerovironment also makes a small, hand-launched reconnaissance drone called the Raven, among others.

Drones have come under fire from human rights groups for their use in targeted assassination strikes, and many privacy advocates say they should be banned as domestic surveillance tools as well. Of course, AeroVironment isn’t the only weapons manufacturer to make charging stations. General Electric, maker of the GE WattStation, has long been one of the top defense contractors in the world.

Many electric car owners are political, and some are motivated to drive an EV as a reaction against military action in the oil-rich Middle East. The manufacture of electric car charging equipment by AeroVironment and GE is a complex and potentially volatile political dynamic.

Sunraycer

The Sunraycer solar-powered vehicle.

So how did AeroVironment end up with such a bizarre pairing of products? In 1987, the company was commissioned by General Motors to design and build a vehicle for the world’s first solar-powered car race. The Sunraycer, as it came to be named, won the first World Solar Challenge handily, establishing a speed record that would stand for more than two decades before being eclipsed last year by an Australian-designed vehicle.

AeroVironment would also become involved in the design of the GM Impact, a concept car inspired by the Sunraycer that would later evolve into the EV1. MacCready helped to design aerodynamics for both vehicles, which at the time were the most ambitious forays by a major carmaker into the electric vehicle market.

What unites drones and the other small aircraft AeroVironment makes to plug-ins is the importance of lightweight, aerodynamic designs and energy efficiency. Drones are designed to fly as long and as far as possible on as little energy as possible, providing a more cost-effective way to conduct aerial surveillance (and in some cases targeted strikes) than manned aircraft. Similarly, range is the name of the game for electric vehicles. True to its name, AeroVironment has split its business between aeronautics and environmentally friendly electric vehicle products—a balance which the company continues to maintain.

Comments

· · 1 year ago

"Many electric car owners are political, and some are motivated to drive an EV as a reaction against military action in the oil-rich Middle East. The manufacture of electric car charging equipment by AeroVironment and GE is a complex and potentially volatile political dynamic."

Very astute observation regarding the conundrum of what AeroVironment and General Electric do, Zach. Good story. I wish we lived in a world where these companies could make their largest profits from EV chargers.

As an old model airplane guy, Paul MacCready is one of my heros. His Aerovironment drones, while he was still alive, were tiny unarmed spy planes: model airplanes with brains. In the spring of 2001, The PBS series Scientific American Frontiers (Alan Alda hosting) devoted most of the program "Flying Free" to MacCready's unique aviation accomplishments. Along with the tiny model airplane spy drones, the program featured a variety amazing MacCready flying machines - both hand-held and full sized - that are still a marvel to watch. None of them were weaponized.

I don't think this particular program ever made it to DVD, but I purchased a VHS copy soon after it aired and showed it to hundreds of grade school kids in my model airplane classes over the ensuing decade. A transcript of the program is available online, with a few photos illustrating the text. If you can't get (or are able to play) the old VHS, it's still worth a look, by clicking through the "Segments" and reading along here . . .

http://www.pbs.org/saf/1109/

I'm not sure what Paul MaCready would think today if he knew the company he founded was now making weapons. He would be certainly proud that Aerovironments was so integrally involved in EV technology, but I don't think this gentle, introspective and thoughtful man would be very pleased that flying bombs currently pay much of the bills.

· · 1 year ago

I have not as of yet purchased any of Aerovironment's products, but I would have if the price was right. I did not know they were manufacturing "KILLER DRONES", and will not consider them in the future, although they do seem to make a good product.

I hate that I'm forcibly coerced to pay mucho $1000's to bomb innocents in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to name just a few places. I'd rather the US was seen as a "Shining City on a HIll", rather than a new "Culture of Death".

· fair play (not verified) · 1 year ago

@Bill Howland,
So you're ok with buying GM vehicles when they make military weapons and you're ok with buying GE charging equipment when they make weapons, you're ok with buying tickets on Boeing aircraft when they make weapons, you're ok with an SPX charger when they make weapons, but you're not ok with AeroVironment?
I'm missing your logic.
You probably also missed the fact that the AeroVironment's lethal small UAS, being much more accurate and efficient, minimize collateral damage (ie not kill civilians), unlike traditional weapons. They don't, of course, make the headlines like other "Killer Drones".
@Benjamin Nead,
Paul MacCready was a WWII naval officer who passed away in 2007 (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/mac0bio-1), long after the development of the ". . . Pointer in 1986, considered by many to be the first true small UAS for military use" (http://www.avinc.com/uas/). Somehow, I suspect he knew about and appreciated the military uses for the efficient systems he worked on developing.

· · 1 year ago

I'm sure, fair play, that Paul MacCready was well aware of the implications of military technology. But I don't think his Aerovironments company was involved in weapons systems as overt as the "kamakazi" drones now being produced when he was at the helm.

Take a look at that Pointer drone. It's basically a hand-held electric R/C model airplane with camera . . . not something the size of human-carrying private aircraft that is armed with high explosives. The question should be when Aerovironments started to develop these newer, larger and highly lethal sort of UAVs . . . not when they started prototyping their initial tiny reconnaissance ones.

As for MaCready's prior military service: a great many more who would not otherwise done so were involved during WWII. It's naive to draw any conclusions from that. But the bio you linked to is telling: nothing there to indicate that his postwar experiences were in alignment with major defense contractors of the day. This is not to say that he was either a hyper-peacenick or staunch militarist. Like most complex humans, he was probably a realist and somewhere in the vast middle.

It's true, though, that if we attempted to blacklist any company (Aerovironments, GE, Boeing, etc.) who are involved with both civilian and military pursuits, we'd have a perilously short shopping list of products to choose from. My preference is to witness the dismantling of much the Cold War military industrial complex at the government purchasing end and direct that funding towards scientific/engineering research that would have a far greater positive impact on this country's citizens.

There was so much hemming and hawing on the political right this past election on "picking winners and losers" with this or that solar panel manufacturer or battery startup. Yet most of this crowd was completely silent when it came to far greater expenditures being funneled to the Defense Department doing exactly the same thing.

· · 1 year ago

Wow,
It is sure obvious why so many people hate EV drivers.
Mr. Nead and Mr. Howland,
It is clear that the only thing we have in common is a desire to get EVs on the road. If you won't support a strong military and are willing to state so that adamantly then I have no respect for you at all.
When I was in the military using Vietnam War era technology, I dreamed of having the kinds of tools that AeroVironment makes today. We were taught how to draw straws to decide who got to take Point since, whoever was on Point was likely to be shot before we knew the enemy was around. We toyed with making RC airplanes with cameras on them but, of course, cameras were too heavy back then.
Now you idiots are willing to shun a company that makes tools that save the life of the poor point man.
Then they come up with a tool that can take out a sniper who might be killing American soldiers without having to level a city block filled with innocent civilians and you brand them "Killer Drones".
Thanks for nothing you stupid, ignorant hippies.

· · 1 year ago

Yada yada yada, ex-EV1.

Where in my posts did I ever imply that I was "shunning" Aerovironments or other companies simply because they have some - or any - sort of tie with the defense industry? Do I wish that they and others could subsist without making weapons? Most reasonable people would agree that this would be a laudable but, sadly, not currently obtainable goal.

If you're self-righteous enough to call me an ignorant hippy (and the hippy part of that moniker is not an insult in my book, so go right ahead,) then get used to being referred to as a knee-jerk reactionary fool for not actually taking the time to properly read and comprehend what I have written.

Fact: the United States spends as much or more on the Department of Defense annually as the next 17 countries in the world combined . . .

http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/06/military-spending

How much of that is sheer waste, redundancy, overkill (you choose whether you want to make that into a pun or not) and the maintenance of Cold War era weapons systems that don't even have relevance or a useful purpose any longer? I'm going to guess tens of billions of dollars - possibly even hundreds of billions - could be shaved off the defense budget without ever putting any proverbial point men in the field in danger.

When you're done watching your John Wayne movie and get over the childish name calling, let me know.

· · 1 year ago

@Benamin Nead,
I don't relish going too far off-topic here since it is an EV site but I'll make 2 more parting, inflamatory shots at things you hold dear, then promise not to say another word on this topic (at least until the next stupid posts come out):
- Your stupid assumption that you " don't think this gentle, introspective and thoughtful man would be very pleased that flying bombs currently pay much of the bills" shows total stupidity. I'll grant that you sort of redeemed yourself later after fair play called you on it. MacCready may have liked airplanes like you do and I may like EVs like you do but that doesn't mean we are as stupid about other things as you are. Going along with your (Hippy) crowd isn't particularly remarkable, even if your cause celebre du jour happens to be right by supporting EVs. Unfortunately every statement like yours from less-intelligent left-wingers convinces less-intelligent right-wingers that EVs are just another left-wing stupid idea. This is one reason our country is so polarized today. BTW, as an EV activist in LA, you might imagine that I actually knew Paul MacCready. I did. Also, if you happen to look at the management team he put together to manage AeroVironment (http://www.avinc.com/about/team/), you'll see that he did not shun people from the military-industrial complex as you naively assume.
- If it costs us as much as the next 17 countries in the world to not have to endure a war in our homes, I'd say that is a pretty good deal. Too bad it does allow fools to live so isolated from reality that they don't even appreciate how good they have it and how it got to them. Hopefully, if we can end our weak dependence on foreign oil, we'll continue to be able to pay that much to remain safe so that worthless no-load hippies can play with their music and toy airplanes in peace. I'm not suggesting that the defense money is efficiently spent any more than any government money is efficiently spent. Unfortunately, I don't have any better suggestions for national security than to get from the government. I'd like to see some reforms but that's a different topic. Its the other wastes of my money by the government that I oppose since I do know of better ways to get those things (including your radio station).
It would be nice if you and your friend Bill would not strike first with such offensive and polarizing comments. Unfortunately, I'm so shallow that the only way I seem to be able to balance your bias is to attack back.
Can't we just get along without attacking things that are very personal to others? I happen to sincerely appreciate our military and when someone attacks it, it disturbs me.

· · 1 year ago

Not so much for your benefit, ex-EV1, but for others who happen to land on this blog page and want to read a sober analysis of what I'm talking about, please refer to web articles presented by the Project On Government Oversight . . .

http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/alerts/national-security/ns-wds-20120731-...

Or these comments from a former US President . . .

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gg-jvHynP9Y

Obviously, I don't think continually - year after year, for more than half a century - spending the sort of money on national defense that you think is such a "good deal" keeps us as safe as you think it does. Much of it is taxpayer money down the toilet, framed by an $800 toilet seat. We'll agree to disagree and I won't lower myself to the continued name calling that, unfortunately, you can't seem to bring yourself to get away from this evening.

· · 1 year ago

@ex-ev1driver

Well, your post was very surprising in a bad way.

You have no idea who I am; adhominem insults debase this forum, and are against the posting policy of PluginCars.com.

I also have to fault the moderators here. I was responding to a firebombing post in a serious matter. My response was 'edited' such that its meaning was obscured. The firebomb was deleted entirely. It should have been left in, I'm no so thin skinned that I can't hear it.

There is NO ONE who values American Ideals here more than me. Part of my edited out response was a brief phrase about enduring ridicule for liberty's sake, here.

@Fair play

I'm not recommending GE products, and all GE products I've seen and used (I should say, 'rented') I havent purchased, and wouldn't recommend them other than to say they do work, specifically a Properly Installed with Good Ground Durastation. Otherwise, in my experience GE products tend to be more than a bit weird. They are mostly a hedge-fund company these days, and have a minority of their business actually selling things, usually not here. They do sell a HUGE variety of products, and some lines are better than others. But its wrong to conclude I'm one of their Big Fans. My big beef with them is the amount of Corporate Welfare they get, as well as evading corporate income taxes, which, incidentally are very constitutional.

· Tweaker (not verified) · 1 year ago

Oh crap. We should be thrilled that military technology is filtering down to make our lives cleaner and less reliant on the whims of dictators and tyrants. Just as military technology often filters down. I would support this company in a heartbeat. Keep innovating and we will have fewer Americans coming home in boxes.

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