Posted: June 01, 2011
Tech startup: TIGON Enertec Inc.Eric Peterson
Photo by Mark Manger
INITIAL LIGHT BULB Four CU-Boulder aerospace grad students - Alec Velazco, Cody Humbargar, Eric Serani and Derek Hillery - studying under Jean Koster developed a hybrid propulsion system for aircraft and spun it off as startup TIGON Enertec last year.
"Koster asked them, ‘Can you make a hybrid unmanned aerial vehicle?'" says CEO Les Makepeace, who came on board last August. The team did exactly that, launching a prototype in spring 2010.
The company is a member of the eSpace Incubator at the Center for Space Entrepreneurship in Boulder.
IN A NUTSHELL Currently, the engines on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are either electric, which are light and quiet but have a limited battery life, or heavier, louder, but longer-range internal-combustion motors. Existing hybrid technologies that utilize two torque inputs are either too complex and therefore expensive or heavy for UAVs, "so they invented a new way and called it a clutchless parallel hybrid," Makepeace says. "It's much simpler than a Prius."
As UAVs have no pilot and usually follow the same route on each flight, there were less constraints on designing a new propulsion system for them. "It's not like there's a pilot saying, ‘That was a little jerky,'" Makepeace says.
While the system offers improved energy efficiency, that's not the primary market driver, Makepeace says. "The market driver is it's quieter. At night, you can't see it, and when you go to electric, you can't hear it. You don't want to influence the activity you're trying to observe." Larger aircraft with TIGON Enertec's system can realize more fuel savings, plus enjoy the benefit of safety inherent in having two propulsion systems.
While initial systems will utilize a gas motor and an electric motor and put out two to 10 horsepower, future innovations in fuel-cell technology and other energy sources could be integrated as one of the torque inputs. The batteries are the most expensive component in the system, Makepeace says. "We want the best energy density we can get."
Trent Yang, director of commercialization and business development for the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI) at CU-Boulder and a TIGON Enertec board member, says the company's commercial viability is exceeding his expectations. "The UAV market has searched for a quiet mode," Yang says. "Nobody's been able to figure that out yet."
THE MARKET "It's a market that's growing wildly," Makepeace says, citing annual global estimates between $10 billion and $15 billion a year. He says the U.S. market is exclusively in defense and security but the global market is nearly half commercial: UAVs are used in precision agriculture, pipeline monitoring and other remote sensing applications.
"That's changing," Makepeace says. "There will be a time when it's more commercial in the U.S."
After UAVs, TIGON Enertec is looking at a variety of small aircraft and ground and marine transportation markets.
FINANCING The company received $40,000 from the RASEI and a $20,000 eSpace grant and is in the process of finalizing a round of $2 million in venture financing.
QUOTE OF THE NOTE "Two companies have contracts with the federal government for hybrid UAVs and they both have called us. That I know of, we are the only viable solution." - TIGON Enertec CEO Les Makepeace
where: Boulder | FOUNDED: Summer 2010 | web: www.tigonenertec.com
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com