In the early years of the drone industry, drones were big and clunky. While drones themselves had been accepted early on as useful tools, they sometimes weren’t used just because transporting them was so aggravating.
On the consumer side, companies like DJI pivoted from bulky DJI Phantoms to the foldable arm design of the Mavic. Those designs have also extended to the commercial side of quadcopter drones.
But even when it comes to fixed wing drones today, a 7-foot wingspan — which would be common for enterprise-grade fixed wings — isn’t exactly easy to transport. That’s where companies like WingXpand come into play.
The Missouri-based company is building a portable fixed wing drone that — true to its name — expands from pack to flight in less than 2 minutes.
I chatted with Michelle Madaras, Chief Customer Officer at WingXpand, who explained how her company makes it all happen. Madaras and I met at the 2023 Emerging Aviation Technologies Thought Leaders’ Summit, where Madaras was accepting an award for WingXpand, which was recognized as one of the Top Companies for Women in Emerging Aviation Technologies.
She told me all about what makes her company’s product — a fixed-wing drone that’s, well, expandable — different.
This interview with Michelle Madaras was edited for clarity and length. Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here.
Drone Girl: By and large, we want smaller, more accessible devices for everything — a laptop versus a desktop, a smartphone versus a landline, mirrorless camera over dSLRs. Of course, that usually applies to drones too.
And the way your drone becomes smaller is incredibly unique. You stand out from all the other drones on the market with your telescoping technology. Tell us about that.
Michelle Madaras: Our telescoping system functions much the same way that a lightsaber toy or a collapsible water bottle operates.
You basically take the drone body and each wing out of a backpack and then pop each wing on the side.
DG: Then you expand out the wings to their full size?
MM: Yes, and no tools needed. If you’re fast, you could get it put together in 45 seconds.
DG: It’s funny because there are so many foldable arms, but I rarely see this telescoping style.
MM: Traditional wings require internal structure, but we figured out how to create that rigidity in a new way which is where our intellectual property comes into play.
DG: And you do have patented technology, so we won’t see replicas of your drones.
MM: We designed a wing without these traditional components. But while it’s a unique design, we think in some ways it actually simplifies the structure of a wing by adding the telescoping component.
DG: And the wings, or rotors in a quadcopter’s case, are one of the most important components of a drone, as we all know.
MM: With a well-designed wing, you can have physics on your side. Propellers are like fans, where you’re beating the air into submission to stay in the air. That requires more battery life.
DG: Wings can create their own lift, so you can use less battery life yet get better flight times out of a fixed wing versus multirotor system.
DG: So what was the specific impetus for the design of WingXpand’s drones?
MM: In defense, drones started to become prolific during the Iraq war, but they were in these huge boxes.
My cofounder James (editor’s note: that’s James Barbieri) is an aerospace engineer by training, and he worked several years supporting the defense and intelligence communities. He understands the problem sets that those folks face. And he thought, why do they have to be so big?
That specifically is what led him to develop our now-patented telescoping wing technology.
DG: The design was initially from military applications, but now you have a strong enterprise and commercial focus.
MM: Sure, military applications are a good problem set to solve, but I actually come in from the commercial side of things. My background is in TV reporting, and I was interested in the way newscasters use drones to help gather video. Years ago, what we found was that news casters had drones but they were providing really shoddy video feeds.
DG: That’s how I first started using drones too! We were using drones to report on events that required first responders like fires.
MM: Right! I was in situations where I was responding to floods and tornadoes. We’d get to know those first responders who were also using drones in their work. We’d commiserate over the same things, even though our crews were using drones for completely different reasons in the same place. We both often agreed that drones just often didn’t work in the way we needed them to.
DG: In those early years, let’s say mid-to-late 2010s, what about drones was lacking?
MM: Battery life and lack of live feed were critical features, especially when you’re talking about life and death. And so while James thought he would make this high-end military drone, I said, “I actually think there’s a lot of value on the enterprise and commercial side.”
DG: And so you created a product for the commercial drone industry, which is where you devote a lot of focus today. And you’re expanding into the commercial side not just in terms of building drones, but also offering services where you manage and pilot the drones, and businesses simply purchase the data from you. And given that growth, you’re hiring drone pilots.
MM: WingXpand is hiring for a range of positions across different disciplines, including software engineering, aircraft hardware engineering, composites manufacturing, finance, business development, and Part 107-certified drone pilots.
DG: So next week, we’ll circle back to talk about exactly that — hiring. In particular, how to get a job as a drone pilot.
Next up is Part 2, where Michelle Madaras gives the inside scoop on what qualities and skills you need to get a job as a drone pilot. Her company, WingXpand, is hiring for a variety of roles.
And come back in two weeks for Part 3, where Madaras will share how her small business is supporting defense innovation (and how other businesses might land major contracts).
If you know an awesome drone girl I should profile, contact me here.