AeroVironment Makes EV Charging Stations, and Military Drones
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.
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.
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