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COLUMN

Whether it's drones or weed whackers, Fort Wayne engine firm looking to take off

Quest for quieter model-plane motor could lead to much bigger things

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 8:36 am

Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane?

If a small Fort Wayne company's dream comes true, it could soon be a drone so quiet it can be seen but not heard – all because its founder wanted to create a better toy.

“(Dad) was an engineer at Magnavox, a flier who loved model planes, and in 1969 he developed his first crude two-stroke engine,” Engine Research Associates Vice President Jeff Erickson said of his father, Frederick, who before he died in 2004 further developed a motor that is not only quieter but is also reportedly cleaner, more efficient and produces a cooler exhaust – all of which the low-profile company hopes will attract the attention of military buyers looking for pilotless aircraft capable of staying aloft for long periods without being noticed by human ears or infrared sensors.

Located at 3219 Stellhorn Road in the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, the small, privately owned company belies Fort Wayne's stereotype as a low-tech, blue-collar town. Innovation has never really been a stranger – the hand-held calculator, gasoline pump and other products were developed here, and television pioneer Philo Farnsworth did much of his work in Fort Wayne – but Engine Research Associates is working to create its own legacy.

The fact that the company's “migrating combustion chamber” owes its birth to Frederick Erickson's desire to create a less-whiny model airplane engine only sweetens the story of how, when the market for such expensive toys softened. The company turned its attention to more serious – and potentially lucrative – pursuits.

The owner of seven patents with four more in the works, the company has won about $4.5 million in government contracts in the past four years, Jeff Erickson said. To date that has been used mostly for research and development and the construction of prototypes, but Erickson and the company's other 10 employees are working on production bids as well.

One of the programs being pursued is the federal Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA)'s so-called Great Horned Owl program, which is seeking ultra-quiet, high-performance drone engines that combine internal combustion and electricity.

I have neither the space nor the expertise to fully explain the technology behind the company's engine. But in very simplified terms, it combines a rotary motion with the linear motion of a more traditional piston engine. And if the resulting benefits have obvious military and intelligence-gathering ramifications, Erickson believes the engine can also improve far more mundane tools – everything from weed-whackers and lawnmowers to automobiles.

The largest engine the company has produced to date generates only 22 horsepower, but Erickson said work is underway on 550 hp and even 1,100 hp engines that could power automobiles – or large weapon-bearing drones cruising at 50,000 feet.

Although Erickson said he shares the concern that drones could be misused in a way that threatens Americans' privacy and wants his technology used responsibly, Vice President George Lewis correctly noted that “that's not our call.”

So the company is plotting its next steps. Engine manufacturers are not usually interested in supporting somebody's competing technology, so the company is trying to attract the attention of manufacturers who need engines but have no vested interest in a particular design. With some states imposing noise levels on garden tools, Erickson hopes, the consumer market may be ripe.

More important, Erickson said, the company needs capital to expand its research and prototype-development efforts. In that regard, its location in the Innovation Center could help. In addition to being an “incubator” that provides office and technical assistance to its tenants, the center can also help locate potential investors. The company builds its prototypes but relies on other area firms for mass production of parts.

“We try to keep everything local,” Erickson said.

With the military budget targeted for cuts and the civilian economy still far from robust, Erickson knows his little company can't afford to limit its options. But the fact that it does appear to have options – many of them, in fact – is a testament to the kind of familial bonds and hard work often associated with Fort Wayne.

And the vision that often isn't, but perhaps should be.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.