Model plane firm flying high

A tiny East Baltimore firm has developed products needed for drones, one of the fastest-growing parts of the defense industry.

Model plane firm flying high

February 23, 2005|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

In the defense business, the road to innovation has historically been a one-way street: Technologies are developed as part new weapons systems and - down the road - may surface in commercial applications.

But tiny Sullivan Products - the Baltimore maker of more than 600 products for radio-controlled model cars and airplanes - has managed to reverse that course.

The firm is using its technology to make components for military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the drones used for surveillance or weapons systems. UAVs have emerged as one of the fastest-growing slices of the defense industry.

In less than four years, privately held Sullivan said, the UAV portion of its business has grown from zero to as much as 15 percent of its annual sales, which the company puts at more than $1.5 million.

"We've always been really good at embracing new technologies and materials, and making them work within the R/C [radio-control] industry," said company President James Hudson, 49, an engineer and Sullivan veteran who bought the firm in 1999.

"UAVs are another market for us. Working with these customers [and helping them solve their design problems] is an excellent business for us."

It was one of the company's innovative products - coupled with a push to diversify outside the traditional hobby market - that guided Sullivan to the UAV market, said Hudson, an Eastern Shore native who lives in Columbia.

That product was Genesys, a powerful, lightweight generator Hudson designed and developed for inflight use aboard radio-controlled model airplanes.

In the years before the product's 1996 introduction, hobbyists had started building larger and larger airplanes, packing them with such power-hungry accessories as retractable landing gear, landing lights, sound effects and stronger versions of the electro-mechanical servo motors that control inflight functions.

Coincidentally, Vince Castelli, a civilian researcher at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division in West Bethesda, was working to develop a UAV that would be capable of extended flight times - as long as 24 hours - and would cost no more than $2,000 once it was in production.

Castelli said the long flight times ruled out battery power, making some sort of onboard alternator mandatory. But the sticker-price ceiling of $2,000 for the UAV essentially required a commercially available technology, because designing an alternator from scratch would have sent costs out of sight.

Cost was key because the project, known as "Swarm," envisioned deploying a swarm of the aircraft over a target area, essentially providing blanket coverage, he said.

When Castelli learned of Sullivan's Genesys generator, he had found his answer. But a new design was needed because the Genesys system produced 5 watts, about a fifth of what was required.

Hudson designed and Sullivan delivered a beefed-up prototype alternator and power-management system for less than $3,000, although a large order would slash the unit price to a fraction of that, Castelli said he was told.

"Jim Hudson is a [superb] engineer," said Castelli, who has since retired from government service. "The real key to his success is that he can see your vision, understands just what it is that you're trying to do, and then builds a product" to achieve those goals.

The Swarm prototype was completed and successfully flown. Deborah Furey, the program's current manager, said the UAV remains in development.

Since then, Sullivan has participated in more than 20 different UAV projects, mostly in the United States, said Hudson, who added that agreements prohibit him from naming the prime contractors.

Although hundreds of UAV development programs are under way worldwide, the involvement of a radio-controlled hobby-products company such as Sullivan is unusual, said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.

UAVs might resemble scaled-up models, but they are far more complex. Because they will be carrying sophisticated monitoring systems or weapons, UAVs have to be super-reliable, highly durable and capable of operating in harsh environments, Davidson said.

Hudson agreed. Although the company's hobbyist-level know-how paved the way into the UAV market, the differences are substantial.

"That's why we consider [the UAV business] a separate product division" Hudson said. "[The UAV components] carry totally different product requirements in terms of engineering, reliability and the environment in which they are expected to operate. While our engineering capability can easily handle it, it is more of a challenge" than designing parts for conventional model airplanes.

Hudson's decision to pursue UAV business grew out of changes in the hobby market since he came on board in 1982, the year that Sullivan Products of Willow Grove, Pa., and The Perfect Parts Co. of Baltimore were combined.

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