NBAA Convention News

Robot man serves food for thought at Dassault breakfast

 - June 30, 2008, 9:50 AM

Attendees at Falcon Jet’s annual NBAA Convention breakfast yesterday probably noticed, some with disdain, that one of the people at the head table stood out from the rest of the room by his attire: an open short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans–quite a contrast to those in the rest of the room wearing jackets and ties.

It wouldn’t be long before the audience would find out that the person who stood out from the crowd because of his clothes also stands apart from the crowd in more meaningful ways. He is Dean Kamen, a 49-year-old self-taught (he never graduated from college) physicist and millionaire who has used his success to make a positive difference in people’s lives, especially young people. He also flies his own corporate jet.

As Falcon Jet president John Rosanvallon wrapped up an update of the company’s new airplane and avionics programs, including the introduction of fly-by-wire (FBW) in the Falcon 7X, he began to introduce Kamen. At that moment the audience may have been surprised to see the guest speaker suddenly get up from his seat at the head table and walk off the dais to vanish behind a curtain at the far left side of the room.

A moment later, he zoomed out from behind the curtain and across the floor in front of the dais on one of his revolutionary Segway “personal transportation vehicles.” He was greeted by cheers and applause from the large crowd.

Kamen, who pilots his own Raytheon Premier I and invents all kinds of useful gadgets, then zipped up a ramp on the side of the dais and came to an abrupt but smooth stop at the edge of the head table. He had clearly gotten the full attention of the audience.

Balanced effortlessly on his two-wheel Segway, the first thing out of Kamen’s mouth was, “I don’t understand why FBW wasn’t introduced earlier. The idea that FBW wouldn’t work in business jets is ridiculous.” After all, he intoned, “people operate by FBW,” (as well as his people mover). “It moves the way I think it to move,” as he demonstrated its operation with a very slight motion in the direction he desired.

It’s Kamen’s contention that 15 or 20 years from now aircraft mechanical systems will have given way to FBW, just as hydraulic brakes in the automotive industry replaced mechanical brakes. “User interface will be transparent,” he said. Its like head-up displays. “After flying with HUD, you realize how crude everything else is.”

Kamen’s discussion about “high tech” served as a smooth segue (pun intended) into his FIRST robotics competition, a unique event for getting high schoolers (and non-schoolers too) excited about science and technology by thinking out of the box. Kamen said FIRST has been especially attractive to minorities.

‘Not a Geeky Science Fair’

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was launched over a weekend in 1985 with the support of 19 corporate sponsors. Groups of students representing different high schools are challenged to build a robot to perform a specific mission, such as moving over an obstruction, picking up an object and depositing it into a bin. The team that accomplishes the mission first is the winner.

Kamen had no idea what to expect for the second year, but he said those same sponsors and more came back. Soon the event outgrew the gymnasium near his home in Manchester, N.H., as more sponsors and more high schools wanted to participate. Last year, he said, 600 high schools were represented in FIRST events in 17 cities in the U.S. and Canada. This year, 23 cities are involved. This is “not a geeky science fair,” Kamen emphasized.    

Several years ago, Falcon Jet’s Rosanvallon told the breakfast audience that he noticed that FIRST sponsors were top-end corporations, many of them Falcon Jet operators. For the past five years, Dassault Aviation has itself been a corporate sponsor. The company may even evaluate one of the Segway people movers in its factory, according to Rosanvallon. 

The program is working, if the endorsement by one high school teacher is typical. He said that before forming a FIRST team, “I don’t believe we have had more than one student in any class go on to [college] majoring in engineering.” After the first class experienced four years of FIRST competitions, 12 FIRST students, “all from inner-city neighborhoods,” received engineering scholarships at various colleges, including the Air Force Academy. 

Kamen summed up his remarks by inviting NBAA attendees to experience the Segway transporter (several demonstrators are available at Falcon Jet’s exhibit Booth No. 6483). He noted that 400 of the $5,000 devices are being evaluated by corporations.

His parting words may have been his most meaningful expression of the morning: “Create more value than you consume.”