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How can you make a battery fly? 

The fundamentals of any drone are actually quite simple. You need a motor (with a propeller) and you need an energy source to power that motor. That’s it. 

Illustration Courtesy of Modovolo

This is using first principles thinking, a method popularized and used by Elon Musk in all his companies, most notably SpaceX and Tesla. For example, Elon has explained that in the early 2000s, everyone said that electric cars would always be impractical because the batteries were too expensive (which would in turn make the car too expensive). 

But Elon applied first principles thinking and realized that the materials used in a battery are very inexpensive, which in turn meant that it was just an engineering and manufacturing challenge to make inexpensive batteries. Another way of thinking of it is, if a battery costs $139 per kilowatt hour, then the materials are about $20 of that and the rest is the cost of manufacturing. And if you are clever, you can drive down your manufacturing costs.   

Erik, CTO, and Justin, CEO, co-founders of Modovolo applied the same kind of thinking to drones which led to a few revelations.  

“First-principles thinking really forces you to look at the problem from a different perspective. Instead of thinking: how do I optimize the current fixed-hub drone design, you ask a different question: What are the fundamentals here? What are the core functions needed to fly? And that leads to the first-principles question: how can you make a battery fly?” explains Erik. 

Justin commented, “A killer drone design must amplify the fundamental components of the motor and energy source. Those are the fundamental elements of flight.”  

Erik continues, “Yet the battery is the key to it all. Motors are light, but batteries are one of the heaviest components of a drone. Sometimes they are even heavier than the payload itself. Weight is the biggest factor in flight time. So the trick is to increase the battery capacity but at the same time limit the need for them.” 

This is the same kind of tradeoff and virtuous loop that Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX faced. Every ounce of weight saved in the construction of the rocket means less fuel, which means you need less infrastructure to hold the fuel, which in turn means you can use less fuel. 

If they could figure out how to minimize the weight of the drone using the fewest number of batteries and limit the infrastructure to hold the propeller, batteries, and payment, then Erik and Justin reasoned, they could make an inexpensive drone that could fly for hours with any sort of payload. 

“That’s what the end goal has always been: using first principles thinking to design and build a drone that had amazing flight time and is orders of magnitude less expensive than anything on the market,” Justin says. 

Erik explains, “Because the battery is key, you need to minimize all the other components. The structure holding the batteries, the propellers, and the landing gear. All of that stuff is important but none of that structure makes the drone fly. It’s just dead weight.” 

This is the part in movies where there are a few minutes of montage video showing meetings, maybe a few long nights, a quick revelation, and the inventor finishing the prototype. The reality is quite different. It’s years of work and the occasional light bulb moment.  It reminds me of Thomas Edison’s old adage: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

“It took us 2 ½ years of constantly banging our heads on the wall trying to make this work. Dozens of prototypes and thousands of hours of iterations and testing – and many dead ends,” says Erik. 

But the light-bulb moment did happen. 

Erik explains, “Yes, the light-bulb moment was when we realized that the bicycle wheel was the perfect structure for a drone. It’s light, strong, and rugged.  It is an underappreciated technological marvel. And it means that the Modovolo Lift is way lighter than any commercial drone. And best yet no one had ever thought to use it in aerospace” 

Image Courtesy of Modovolo

Justin continues, “The bicycle-wheel-inspired Lift Pod also has this amazing capability that no one else in the drone industry has. It’s modular and endlessly configurable. Instead of buying a new drone for each application, you can connect Lift Pods with Utility Pods to create the drone you need. Have a heavier payload? Simply add more Lift Pods to get more thrust and flight time.” 

So after 2 ½ years of development (and filing a bunch of patents), what’s the next step in the Modovolo story?  

“We’re in the process of getting our first manufacturing production cell set up and we’re offering a limited run of 200 pre-orders. Those customers will get guaranteed production priority, special access to our engineering team, a limited edition modovolo t-shirt, and get to direct what kinds of Utility Pods we’ll build first.” Justin states.

You can go to modovolo.com to learn more and get your pre-order today.