Interview with Sean Frawley, Creator of the FlyTech DragonflyPosted by Jeff Block on Friday, 20 April 2007
Recently, I caught up with Sean Frawley, the creator of the FlyTech Dragonfly and got to ask him some questions. He was kind enough to take time with me, and excited to share his experience with the Dragonfly with all of us at RoboCommunity. Check this out...
Jeff: Hundreds of dragonfly enthusiasts will read this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you came to be at WowWee, so that they can get to know you a bit?
Sean: I am a 22 year-old from New York with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I have been building flying contraptions as long as I can remember, most were model airplanes, but a few were full-size gliders. My interest in aeronautics is concentrated mostly in unorthodox aircraft such as ornithopters like the Dragonfly.
My “toy story” began when I was about 15. I started a business with a friend in 1999 selling plans for ornithopters of my own design (www.ornitech.com). We slowly extended our product line to 2 different models with plans and kits. This attracted interest from Chuck Hirshberg, a writer at Popular Science who wrote about OrniTech in the June 2002 issue. Orders, and enquiries poured in from this publicity. In the months following, we sold over 1,000 kits all over the world. But the most interesting correspondence we received was an invitation from Peter Yanofsky, the President of WowWee to work as a consultant for the company. I jumped at the chance and was soon in regular correspondence with them to help develop a new line of flying toys.
I continued working for Wowwee during my time at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a week after graduating, moved to Hong Kong to take a full-time job in the office there.
Jeff: What is your title exactly? And what is your role on the dragonfly project? How were you involved in its creation?
Sean: I’m a “Project Manager”. PM’s here are responsible for guiding a project from its conceptual beginnings all the way through to production. This requires coordinating efforts happening every day in our offices in Montreal and Hong Kong. Being based in Hong Kong, I very often traveled to our factories in the region to work directly with the engineering teams there.
After having refined my conceptual prototype, I pitched the idea for the product at our annual think tank in January of 2006. Everyone loved the idea and we began work immediately with the goal of getting it to market ASAP.
Jeff: Who dreamed up the dragonfly? Who was the original idea person for the project?
Sean: The initial idea for the dragonfly came from Wowwee’s President, Peter Yanofsky. He had been requesting innovative, indoor flying toys, and suggested that I make an RC version of my rubber-band powered dragonfly.
I spent about 2 years refining the concept, and in January of 2006, I gave a demonstration of the concept at our annual new product meeting. A few figure 8’s in the crowded meeting room was all it took to convince everyone that this could be a great product.
Jeff: Who is the technical mastermind behind the dragonfly? Who were the most involved in its core technology? Dragonfly is based on research that I did over a period of several years into low-speed unsteady aerodynamics. The main result of it is that at small scales, flapping wings are much more efficient than propellers. I used this data to design the wings and flapping mechanism.
Sean: The idea for the tail rotor came on a suggestion from Mark Tilden, who I’m sure your readers are familiar with. Grant Mckee (another BEAM roboticist at WW) was extremely helpful in prototyping gearboxes and frames. Other great features of the product such as the tail ribbon, and beginner/expert switch came from other people at WowWee who had a chance to test early versions and give comments.
Jeff: What was the most significant challenge your team faced in bringing the dragonfly to market?
Sean: Weight reduction is always the biggest challenge when making a flying toy. The first hand-built prototypes weighed 18 grams, while the first factory-built ones were nearly 30 grams. So we had to put Dragonfly on a diet to bring the weight down to 25 grams for the final production version. I spent quite a while drilling holes into gears and shaving plastic off the frame to get the weight down.
Jeff: How long did it take to move it from inception to final production?
Sean: The first RC dragonflies I had built were completed around mid 2003, but the direct ancestor of the Dragonfly was built in January 2006, and production began a little less than one year later, on December 22nd, 2006.
Jeff: Did the dragonfly go through a lot of design changes in its lifetime? Is what we see today very similar to where it started?
Sean: Over the development period, I tried many different designs, but eventually settled on the current configuration, and tweaked that over a period of about 2 years in order to get certain things like size and weight just right. The wingspans ranged from 10 inches, up to 30 inches and the weight from about 5 grams to nearly half a pound.
Jeff: What do you like the most about the dragonfly now that it’s finished? What is your favorite aspect of the toy?
Sean: What I like the most about the dragonfly is how easy it is to fly. You can hand the remote to anyone and in a few minutes they can be doing figure 8’s in your backyard. This brings the fun of RC flight to anybody with an interest in it.
Jeff: What do you find most rewarding about working at WowWee and with robotics in general?
Sean: WowWee is a fascinating place to work. We have experts from all over the world working here on all sorts of robots. The offices are packed with many types of flyers, walkers, roller, BEAM bots, etc.
My experience in robotics had been very slim until I came to WowWee. But now I find it very interesting, as it is multidisciplinary. Elements of mechanical, electrical, and interface design must be integrated into a product that is fun and easy to use. It’s challenging, but fulfilling to see the project go to market and have others enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Jeff: What is the dragonfly made of? What materials were used in its construction?
Sean: Dragonfly is comprised of several different materials. The wing spars are carbon fiber, with mylar membranes. The gearbox and body frame are made from Delrin, a strong and low-friction plastic (essential for a good gearbox). This is covered by an EPP body shell. EPP is short for Expanded PolyPropylene. It is similar to normal Styrofoam, but is much more durable and impact resistant. Many people have commented that Dragonfly simply bounces away from even the hardest crashes.
Jeff: People are saying its wings are practically indestructible? How kid-proof are they really?
Sean: It really is a very durable product. During development, we systematically eliminated weak points so that overall the dragonfly is tough to damage. Kids get so excited flying this thing, they tend to be a bit rough, and we had to take that into account. Also, the fact that carbon fiber is about seven times stronger than steel really helps out.
Jeff: I know you probably can’t tell us much, but everyone is wondering if there will be more flying toys from WowWee? Will they be similar to the dragonfly or go in a different direction?
Sean: We definitely plan on releasing more flying toys. There are several under development and will be available in 2008. Some use the dragonfly as inspiration, and others are entirely new.
Jeff: Last question… Where does the term “FlyTech” come from? Why is the dragonfly called the “FlyTech Dragonfly”?
Sean: "FlyTech" is our new brand identifier for WowWee’s line of flying toys. We wanted to differentiate our brand from others in the RC category and to reflect the fact that we have incorporated new technologies that enhance the user experience.
A huge thanks to Sean for taking the time to rap. If you have questions for him, other things you wish I'd asked, comments on the interview, etc, please let us know.
Also thanks to Nigel Cook, who photographed this picture of Sean flying an early prototype while he was still in school at university.