September 03, 2012
The founders of Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) had barely graduated from college when they received a small contract in 2004 to make desktop static-display models for NASA.
From that humble beginning the small California company has grown into an advanced-concept developer with clients including Boeing, NASA, AeroVironment and Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works. ESAero's current workload is an eclectic mix ranging from supporting the development of a hybrid airship to designing an electric distributed-propulsion aircraft concept for NASA.
“We were fresh out of school, had no kids, no mortgages,” says President Andrew Gibson. “It was feast or famine to start with, we got contracts here and there, but then we got our big breaks—first with NASA and then with Boeing Phantom Works and Aerocopter.” Gibson, together with fellow California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo graduates and co-founders Benjamin Schiltgen and Trevor Foster, established ESAero in 2003 “around the goal of forming a design capability when we came out of school.”
The design element “took off,” says Gibson, who adds that not everything worked out initially. “Being young and dumb, it took two to three years to work out what we should and shouldn't do.” To help them figure it out, they enrolled the help of former industry design leaders who became consultants for the larger engineering projects. They include Darold Cummings, former Boeing Advanced Design/Phantom Works exploratory concepts manager, and David Hall, an aerospace professor, former project manager and lead engineer. Others include flight analyst Glen Mills and business development specialist John Winter.
Building on its design work, ESAero has also seen strong growth in its technology demonstration capabilities, which Gibson considers a key strength for a company based on innovation. At first, demonstrations were seen almost as a necessary evil. “People were having trouble seeing our vision, but that's changed in the last couple of years,” he says.
The ESAero ethos is to “forget analysis paralysis and get in the hangar and build something. If it fails, go back and do it again,” says Gibson. The policy has stood it in good stead. “Now we're building technology demonstrators for a couple of companies, including some large primes, because we can cost-effectively build it, fly it—and crash it sometimes. It verifies the design and the data. We're doing it with Lockheed Martin, and right now with another company called Sofcoast for which we are testing a small, back-packable hybrid airship with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.”