Did the Hippies Give Us Drones?

Should we blame the hippies for today’s generation of drone aircraft?1 Hmm. An interesting but odd proposition. Here’s another question for you, one which might lead to an answer. What do the two aircraft below have in common?

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Answer #1: Both are connected closely to the career of inventor Paul B. MacCready (shown below in a 1999 photo). To be sure, in this picture and every other that I’ve seen, MacCready looks nothing like a hippie).2

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The object on the left is the Gossamer Condor. Designed by MacCready, a Caltech-educated scientist (1925-2007) with advanced degrees in physics and aeronautical engineering. In August 1977, the Condor became the first aircraft capable of sustained human-powered flight when pilot Bryan Allen pedaled it around a figure-8 course. Only one was ever built and it’s currently hanging in National Air and Space Museum.

The craft on the right is a Puma, an “unmanned aircraft system” – i.e. a drone. A four and a half foot-long craft with a propeller in the nose and a swiveling camera on its underside, it was originally built for military applications. Recently the Puma was also approved for environmental monitoring and resource surveys. Since it first flew in 2007, more than 1,000 Pumas have been built – each costs $250,000 – and they are deployed all around the globe.

Answer #2:  Both aircraft originated from the machine shops and design boards of AeroVironment, the California-based company that MacCready started in 1971.

Drones, of course, are a hot news topic now. What is more of interest to me, however, is the indirect path that led from MacCready’s fascination with gliding to his desire to make a person-powered aircraft to today’s AeroVironment which supplies some 85% of the U.S. military’s drones.

As the title of the post suggests – a twisted trail leads from countercultural ideals of “soft technologies” to displays of hard power and omnipresent surveillance via drones in today’s war zones. Can we blame the hippies for drones? Well, not quite. But there are some interesting connections.3

The story of MacCready and AeroVironment is one of contingency and chance, not causality. That is to say, MacCready’s environmental interests and explorations of alternative approaches to flying do not directly lead to Predator drone strikes in Pakistan.4 But I think the story of AeroVironment (and MacCready’s career) says something about how childhood passions can be turned in unexpected directions.

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MacCready, age 15, posing with gas-powered model plane. Photo from Paul B. MacCready papers, Caltech Archives.

Born in 1925, as a boy, MacCready was fascinated with model airplanes. He was part of that generation influenced by what historian Joseph Corn called “the winged gospel” – the idea that flight could serve as a means to transform society in positive ways. He soon became a champion glider pilot. This required having supreme mastery of a piloted craft, an irony given the turns his life’s work would ultimately take.

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MacCready, 1948, competing in soaring contest over Torrey Pines, CA.

After graduating with his PhD from Caltech in 1952, MacCready founded a company called Meteorology Research Inc.. Its primary activity was weather modification via cloud seeding.

In a 2003 interview, MacCready noted that, by the early 1970s, he was increasingly interested in environmental issues. In the summer of 1971, with two colleagues from Caltech, he started AeroVironment. Some of their first work involved building instruments to study meteorological disturbances like thunderstorms. But what brought media attention and profitability to MacCready and his fledgling company was the Condor and its pedal-powered successor, the Gossamer Albatross.

MacCready, as he often related it, was motivated to build the Condor because of a business debt he owed. He learned of the Kremer Prize, set up in 1959 by a British industrialist, which offered £50,000 to the first group that could demonstrate sustained human-powered flight. The Condor flew in 1977 and the Albatross crossed the English Channel two years later. The prize money for both feats paid off MacCready’s debts and then some. 

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AeroVironment’s Solar Challenger

Interests in alternative energy and energy efficient vehicles followed along with documentary films, books, and magazine articles about MacCready’s designs. In November 1980, another craft built by AeroVironment flew – the Solar Challenger – powered by an electric motor charged by photovoltaic cells.

Besides also crossing the English Channel, the Solar Challenger also set an altitude record of over 14,000 feet. MacCready saw feats like this as a way of bolstering support for the solar power industry. As he recalled, “we felt that flying an airplane on solar power would be a bit of a help to the field, because it would bring a lot of publicity.” The strategy succeeded. Bolstered with a higher profile, one of the projects he pursued was the Sunraycer, a solar powered race car, that AeroVironment developed in the 1980s with General Motors and Hughes Aircraft.

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Altogether, MacCready’s work brought him personal accolades and attention. In 1982, for example, he received the Lindbergh Award for his “significant contribution toward creating a better balance between technology and the environment.” But government support for solar power, and alternative energy projects in general, diminished starting during the Reagan years as costs of fossil fuels fell and MacCready looked to other patrons.

The Department of Defense, flush with money from Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, funded AeroVironment to explore unpiloted high-altitude solar-powered craft.  One of these projects, Helios, first flew in 1999. Later, the project was taken over by NASA. In August 2001, Helios flew to over 100,000 feet, the highest any aircraft had ever flown. A month later, 9/11 happened and armed drones – not made by AeroVironment, just to be clear – were deployed in the Afghanistan region.

Given this history, AeroVironment’s gradual drift into unmanned drone aircraft seems more understandable. But what is intriguing to me – regardless of how one feels about issues drones raise about safety, privacy, proliferation, and foreign policy – is that one part of their technological history goes back 1970s-era ecological thinking. We might think of AeroVironment’s history as one of good intentions, a “what if” story…and that’s where the contingency and circumstance come into play.

Over time, AeroVironment had transitioned from a company with 70s-era environmental aspirations to a military contractor.5 Near the end of his life, MacCready expressed great pessimism about the future, humans’ technological control of nature, and the state of the world.  As he told an interviewer, “We are no longer living in a big world that we’re just a part of and a lot of other things are a part of, too. We are now in charge…I’m probably the most pessimistic [of our board members]. The businesses we get into are good businesses for the company, but they tend to be businesses that fit with the realities of the world.”

Today, the company MacCready started more than forty years ago still maintains an Efficient Energy Systems division…so maybe there’s still some hope that the animating aspirations that got AeroVironment started can still take flight.

 

  1. Those in the history of science community may rightly see this post’s title as an homage to my colleague Dave Kaiser’s splendid book How the Hippies Saved Physics. []
  2. MacCready’s professional papers have been donated to the Caltech Archives; a finding aid for them is available here []
  3. Obviously, there is a much longer history of drones and unpiloted aircraft, one that goes all the way back to World War One and the “air torpedoes” that inventor Elmore Sperry developed for the Navy. []
  4. The Predator and other such models are not made by AeroVironment; according to its website, the company only makes one weaponized model []
  5. According to its 2013 financial report, 43% of AeroVironment sales are to the U.S. Army []

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