Upward Force

By Beacon Staff

When Adam Paugh’s parents offered to make an initial investment in his startup company, Quadrocopter, last spring, they had one very specific condition involving an Italian restaurant in Bigfork.

“They said, ‘We’ll help you with the startup, but when you hit $1 million in gross sales, you have to take us to Moroldo’s,’” Paugh recalled during an interview last week from Quadrocopter’s office in a nondescript storefront between Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

At the time, Paugh and his partner, Florian Seeger, thought it would be at least five years if they were lucky before anyone got taken out to dinner. But they both grossly underestimated how their business selling radio-controlled, flying copters capable of accepting mounted cameras for aerial photography would, er, take off.

So in December, Paugh was stunned to realize they were about to hit their goal: “It just blew my mind to realize we hit $1 million in gross sales in eight months.”

And by all accounts, the dinner celebration was sweet.

Not only has Quadrocopter’s growth been impressive, but in less than a year its client list includes some of the top brands in entertainment and technology, including Walt Disney Imagineering and NASA, to name a couple. Google purchased two copters for its Google Maps surveying project. And Quadrocopter just finished up an order for ESPN, which plans to use the units for aerial shots during coverage of the British Open.

The majority of their clients, however, are much smaller, and have used the copters for everything from wedding photography to studying water use for irrigation in California to plotting the path of future power lines.

“It’s pretty remarkable the types of clients we deal with,” Paugh said. “And this is just the beginning – I just see the use for these things across the board.”

Quadrocopter’s origins go back several years to Germany, where Seeger and several others began to develop an open source project working on unmanned aerial vehicle platforms. That eventually evolved into MikroKopter, the German company that currently supplies the kits Quadrocopter uses to assemble its ready-to-fly units.

On the window next to the front door of Quadrocopter’s office hangs one of the original units – and the vastly different design of the older model compared to current units makes evident how rapidly this niche industry is evolving.

Last spring, Seeger – a programmer at The Zane Ray Group in Whitefish – approached Paugh and suggested they start a side business using the copters to sell photographs and video of events. At the time Paugh, a carpenter, was dealing with the construction slump and welcomed the opportunity.

But before long he and Seeger realized acquiring any new or replacement parts for the copters in the United States was time-consuming and tedious, due in large part to shipping from Europe. The actual assembly of the MikroKopters was also complex and demanding, which led to the development of a support website with pictures and guidance for assembly and maintenance. Taking the idea one step further was a natural progression.

“Then we get this wild idea to sell ready-made multi-rotors,” Paugh said. “And after that it was all over.”

He hasn’t worn a tool belt since.

For several months the business operated, “from a coffee table in Coram” Paugh said, with shipments containing tens of thousands of dollars in technology regularly delivered to the tiny post office there. Paugh stood over Seeger’s shoulder, watching him solder, learning to assemble and calibrate the copters.

“It really is a flying computer,” Paugh said. “So there is pretty advanced programming that needs to happen – it’s a pretty sophisticated machine.”

“My background was in carpentry,” he added. “Building something as elegant as this MikroKopter kind of appeals to me.”

The units Quadrocopter sells range in price from about $3,500 for the most basic Quadrocopter to $12,250 for their top-of-the-line unit with a full carbon fiber assembly. The actual copters consist of a flight control “tower,” with a compass, GPS unit, and navigation controls. Extending from this tower are four, six or eight arms ending in motors with attached propellers. Beneath the tower sits the battery, antennae and mounting hardware for a camera.

The copters come with a remote control transmitter for steering, as well as a computer receiver unit, allowing the user to see what the copter’s camera sees, and plot its flight path. Most copters have a flight time of about 15 minutes, though lighter units can fly for as long as 35 minutes, depending on the battery and payload weight.

Watching the video or looking at a photograph that a Quadrocopter piloted by co-founder Jeff Scholl has shot, the stability of the image is astonishing. In most instances, the swoops and pans are indistinguishable from the shots movie directors use massive cranes or cables or full-size helicopters to create. Paugh attributes that capability to the design.

“Since it has multiple blades, it inherently wants to remain stable,” he said.

Quadrocopter is presently one of around six firms in the world selling these particular units ready-to-fly upon arrival, and one of only two U.S. distributors of MikroKopter’s parts.

And though Quadrocopter is less than a year old and employing only a handful of workers, Seeger and Paugh find themselves once again confronting the next step for their small company: developing their own, proprietary frames and mounting hardware based on their flying experience. They plan to begin working with a computer-aided design (CAD) engineer to create the parts.

“At this point, we’re kind of in the transition of taking something that’s been a project and making it into a product,” Paugh said. “We’ll have all those parts manufactured right here in Montana.”

Quadrocopter is also enhancing its video tutorials to cut down on the amount of time the co-owners spend on customer support; the company’s growth demands it. As for growing a technology business far from major cities in the U.S., Paugh hasn’t found it to be an obstacle.

“We do catch a lot of people by surprise when they ask where we’re located,” Paugh said. “They figure we’ll be in Silicon Valley or something. Here we are in Montana.”

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