Out of this world: Santa Barbara company produces saucer-shaped UAVs

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November 1st, 2013

 By Stephen Nellis on November 1, 2013.



Aerobat Aviation’s carbon fiber two-meter Geobat drone. From left, Craig Minor, Steven Goodman and Michael Wynne. (courtesy photo)





Flying saucers have landed in Santa Barbara.

Aerobat Aviation, a Santa Barbara firm with ties to Georgia, is planning to take its saucer-shaped unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, on the road in the coming months hoping to raise $5 million from investors.

The company was founded in July 2010 with an air frame designed by Georgia inventor Jack Jones. The frame itself looks sort of like a flying saucer with the a large cut-out toward the back, blending the best of saucer and hollow-ring designs that have been tried, and discarded, in the past. The company believes that the frame, called the GeoBat, will let the craft handle better in windy conditions and carry heavier payloads for its size than a traditional tube-and-wing UAV.

But the novel shape is only part of the story, said co-founder Travis Shannon. He said the real key to delivering a functional saucer-shaped UAV will be the guidance system and how well it works with whatever kind of sensors the user, whether it’s farmers or the military, wants to put on the craft. That is where Aerobat is hoping its product, which has been developed with funds from friends and family, will be a winner.

“We do more than make air frames,” Shannon told the Business Times. “UAVs are more about sensor platforms and payloads.”

But those air frames are what grabs the casual viewer’s attention. Aerobat has a one-meter wide version made in Phoenix and a two-meter wide version that was crafted from carbon fiber in Georgia, where the company obtained a certificate from federal regulators to test it. The shape has some unique aerodynamic properties and can dart off in different directions very quickly.

“We have yet to find an angle of attack where we stall out,” Shannon said. “We’ve got these crazy angles we can fly at and literally turn on a dime.”

The company is working on making a craft that can hover as well as go forward. The goal is to create a UAV that blends the advantages of today’s two dominant types, the tube-and-wing designs and the quad-copter designs. Shannon said the big reason that saucer designs are now viable is improvements in avionics, the electronic sensor and guidance systems in crafts that can make the lightning-quick adjustments needed to keep a saucer stable.

“The guidance systems are getting better. An aircraft that would have been unflyable is now flyable,” he said.

The company’s next step is to target international markets like Brazil and Asia, where UAVs are already being used in agriculture. Shannon said the company is targeting base models that could cost less than $1,000. “We’re looking to target the international markets because the FAA here hasn’t opened up the skies yet,” Shannon said.

Most of the company’s large prototypes so far have been constructed with the help of universities and Georgia. Its executives and engineers are in California, but Shannon said it’s most likely that production will occur in Georgia. California’s labor costs and regulations are tough, and officials in one Georgia town have offered a 52,000-square-foot production facility for free if the company creates at least 40 jobs.

As wild as it sounds, Shannon said the company eventually has loftier goals than displacing tube-and-wing UAVs with its saucers. He wants to replace traditional passenger and cargo planes as well. Sound crazy? Well, it is. But he is hoping that an investor on the mold of Richard Branson and Elon Musk, who are pursuing commercial space travel and electric cars with their millions, might just be intrigued by flying saucers.

“We want to move on to bigger and better things. We want to move into manned flight eventually,” Shannon said. “We know that person is out there. That’s the type of person or group we want to get in front of.”

As Seen on Pacific Coast Business Times