Apr
07

Griffon Aerospace: Lessons from the Pilot Behind a Fleet of Low-Cost Unmanned Aircraft

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Griffon AerospaceI recently had the privilege of meeting Larry French, CEO of Griffon Aerospace (also see Wikipedia’s article on Griffon). He is an inventor, an entrepreneur, a pilot, and the brains behind several major product innovations, including the Lionheart 6-passenger airplane and a host of unmanned aircraft that are disrupting the aviation world with their high performance at very low cost.

The Outlaw

The Outlaw

Griffon has made news recently with the success of its unmanned aircraft. These drones are playing increasingly important roles in military actions around the world and help save many lives (for the forces deploying them). The Broadsword, for example, is a large unmanned device that can carry numerous sensors and other devices to assist the military in many operations. New contracts have come in for that. They also recently won a 5-year contract for the production, maintenance, engineering and flight services for the Remotely Piloted Vehicle Target (RPVT) program. Their bread and butter seems to have been the Outlaw™, a 120-lb gross weight air vehicle that can carry 30 pounds of payload. If I understood correctly, they can manufacture and sell this aircraft for a about 1/5 of what their competitors have been able to do–a remarkable cost benefit that stems from vigorous innovation on many fronts.

The Lionheart

The Lionheart

Larry began as a pilot and an inventor, creating efficient airplanes like the Lionheart in 1994. In 1994 he founded Griffon Aerospace to pursue the unmanned aircraft market. Keeping his operations close to him, with tight control over training of employees, materials, processes, design, and manufacturing has helped him to innovate across the supply chain and at all levels, resulting in significant cost reductions and competitive advantage. Griffon is based in Madison, Alabama (near Huntsville), where the launch of the 500-lb BroadSword was recently heralded by the Madison Weekly.

Larry’s journey as an entrepreneur and innovator has required that he face and overcome many of the innovation fatigue factors we describe in Conquering Innovation Fatigue. The ever-changing burdens of government regulation can be discouraging and expensive, for example. But he has found ways to cope, painful as it can be. The early years were truly difficult and required a lot of faith to keep the business alive. Now it is highly successful with over 50 employees and a bright future with valuable products that are changing the way we approach war, with far less risk to human pilots and crews. They can thank the pilot behind Griffon, the visionary innovator, Larry French.

Larry had this to say about launching his businesses:

For me I’m a “build it and they well come” business guy. I initiated and sustained the Lionheart development and marketing on 90% passion and 10% personal/investor funding. Without that 90% passion I would not have attracted believers willing to give me some of their money. Same with our current next generation of UAVs. The UAV market is in its infancy which means there are so many diverging opportunities that trying to select which of all the potential doors a winner is behind is nearly impossible. So, after reasonable absorption of the market trends, I follow my passion for the next aircraft. Fortunately now, unlike 10 years ago, I have the resources (passion, people, facilities, and finances) to convert idea to product.

Innovation never stops at Griffon. One of the next challenges on the aviation horizon is the heavy fuel engine, an engine that can burn heavy fuels such as diesel fuel or biodiesel instead of the lighter aviation fuel that can be so expensive in foreign theaters. (One energy expert told me that the delivered cost of aviation fuel in Afghanistan is $600/gallon. Wow. With diesel, local fuels could support the aircraft engine and greatly reduce costs. As heavy fuel engines emerge, I expect to see them used successfully by Griffon Aerospace, with their own added inventions.

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