By Mike Hasler
“Why do you need to go to California?” my editor asked coldly, too busy to crane his neck my way so that our eyes could meet. His coffee and laptop got more face time than his least-favorite reporter, but this story was going to blow that old notion out of the office and into my new corner one.
“To interview a…” It sounded good in my head, but out loud? I swallowed, my throat narrow. Life was lived in the moment. This moment was one of danger. Danger called for courage. The ability to summon courage made me something of a patriot. It was my duty to declare that I wanted to interview…
“…a Puma, sir.”
Boss lowered his cup slow, giving cold eyes time to pierce the personal force field I’d invented after my last travel request. “Only if this cat can fly.”
How did he know? Didn’t matter. He thought his clever retort killed my story and my travel plans. He had no idea that when I got promoted to Editor-in-Chief and wrote him directions for the social assistance office the old boy would land on his feet, finding success as a sidewalk psychic. “Slip me the travel money, sir. This cat does just that.”
I made us some celebratory coffee, grinding the beans by hand. Boss was going to do okay. I was going to California to interview a cat.
They had to borrow energy to do it, but the Golden State gave the world good things: Apple, singing raisins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cher. They even flirted with putting an actor in political office and wisely chose a guy who had experience fighting unmanned machines for the fate of the free world. Now, the boys on the beach were putting cats in the air.
I donned my wingsuit and flew to Aerovironment, a technology solutions provider headquartered in Monrovia. With the industry’s affinity for naming these mechanical beasts after vicious animals, my interest was kindled to see what kind of claws Aerovironment’s “Puma” brandished.
Right from the landing I got that ‘you’re not wanted’ vibe. It wasn’t anyone at Aerovironment’s fault. I had been an ugly child and we had gotten the reconstructive surgery on sale. The dyed-blonde receptionist told me the Puma would be available some time this year, so I took a seat in the waiting room to review my notes.
Their brochure knew a lot more, and I learned the Puma AE (Puma was an acronym for Pointer Upgraded Mission Ability, AE for All Environment) had been designed for land and sea operations, and it could take off or touch down on either surface. Since 2008, the Unmanned Aerial System had been making a name for itself with America’s Special Operation Command where it proved effective in scouting ambushes, detecting roadside bombs and warning of weather conditions not conducive to home team victory. What brought me down here though was a rumor they had found a way to greatly increase flight time. How? I asked that too. I was here to pull the curtain back on this scientific marvel and discover the wizard behind the wonder.
Something itched my brain. Despite improved sky endurance, the new time still fell short of…. I flipped to the research points I had made last week while visiting Silent Falcon UAS Technologies in Colorado. Boss let me do a piece on their “Silent Falcon” drone (and its cool weaponized variant, the “Snipe”). My notes reminded me the Silent Falcon could fly fourteen hours on… solar power. I’m no cardiologist, but that seemed like more time in the sky than the improved Puma was getting. Was this solar power responsible? And if so, what other secrets was Outer Space keeping from us?
An intern too slight to fill his dress shirt opened the door leading to the main hangar. I looked past him to the welding, clanging, banging, expecting CEO Tim Conver or maybe even legendary founder Paul MacCready to emerge from the shower of sparks. Nope. This guy. I shook his soft hand and read the sticker that said, “Hi My Name is: John Smith.” Really? John Smith? Husband of Pocahontas? Did this kid even work here, or had he escaped his school field trip to play a prank on a poor reporter just trying to write The Big One? John kept glancing over his shoulder, eager to end my intrusion so he could get back to Facebook. I couldn’t blame him. Most people acted that way when they met me.
I followed the young man into the hangar, past Aerovironment UAS family members Raven, Wasp, and Shrike. There was an awkward pause as I hung around the three drones hoping to meet Wolverine, Cyclops and Beast. They didn’t show. X that off the bucket list. Stepping over the battery-powered Puma AE, I stopped dead. Spread before me was the big prize, the showstopper, the state of the union, the solar Puma. I stroked its thirteen pound re-enforced fuselage and let fingers trail over the nine foot wingspan before sitting cross-legged on the concrete for my once-in-a-lifetime chance under this employer to ask a cat some questions.
I cleared my throat. “Thanks for seeing me, cat. How do you do that, by the way?”
For some reason, the young man who had ushered me in talked before the Puma could answer, an annoying interjection he would continue throughout our time together. “The Puma’s equipped with a GP HD EO IRC + 860 nanometer laser illuminator.”
“I see. And does that come in English?”
I squinted, as if that would help deduce his logic. We weren’t clicking yet, unlike the three sizes of wing you could snap onto competitor Silent Falcon. Head ducking either side, I studied the solar Puma for similar clips, but the wings seemed to only come in the one length. “For our readers,” I coughed, “who don’t work here, could you stretch those letters out?”
“The Puma’s equipped with gimbaled payload, high resolution electro-optical infrared camera and this little light that lets it see in the dark.” He reached to the Puma’s underbelly to give the cat’s payload a scratch. When he stood, it seemed like he wanted to make a break for it.
“Am I wasting your time?” I asked the young executive who looked like he should be presenting these facts to his eleventh grade science class instead of touring professional writers around an established Technology company.
“Allow me to continue.” I knocked on Solar Puma’s casing.
“What’s she made of?”
“The Puma is a battle-proven unmanned aerial system dedicated to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, with military and civilian application. Aerovironment has delivered thousands of new and replacement UAS to branches of the armed forces, customers within the United States, and to more than twenty international governments.”
“I feel like I could have read that in the brochure.”
“We prefer the human touch here, sir,” said the man telling me about a robot plane. That’s why our motto is ‘AV: Human Power™.’ He jiggled as he drew me the little TM in the air.
“But I meant what is she made of? Looks like plastic.”
“Oh, the Puma’s a lightweight mixture of composite materials. The two-blade propeller there is probably Kevlar and epoxy.”
I stood, if just to get a little closer to this man’s strange brain. “Probably?”
“Well, it’s not papiér mâché.”
“Shouldn’t you know what the thing you’re explaining is made of?”
“I’m testing you.”
“Do you know everything there is to know about your field?” the kid asked.
“I do, but there’s always room for psycho spirituality, don’t you think? We’re all composites, if you get deep about it. Who knows what really makes us up? Could be a writer. From Space.” He leaned in, flashed brown eyes. “A Ghost Writer.”
This interview was off to a weird start, but nothing a little alcohol couldn’t straighten. I was still waiting for my aide to offer me a beverage, so I dropped a not-so-subtle hint in the general direction of the plane-shaped Puma. “What are you drinking, big cat?”
Again the kid cut him off. “The solar Puma runs on a hybrid system of battery and solar power, with the solar component provided by Alta Devices in Sunnyvale, California.”
“It doesn’t come from the sun?”
“Uh…the energy does. The PV strip —” He bowed, extended his hand. “I’m sorry, to you that’s Photovoltaic paneling—is the means by which we collect sunlight and convert it to electricity. The name is derived from the Greek phos meaning ‘light,’ and from ‘volt,’ meaning the unit of electro-motive force, so named for the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electro-chemical cell.”
I didn’t know that. I didn’t tell him. My face must have.
He lowered his chin but not his glare. “The battery. With Alta’s help, Aerovironment has shattered the time a UAS can stay aloft. The Puma AE’s longest flight was 3.5 hours.” My guide stamped his foot proudly, stood taller at attention, almost saluted. “Solar Puma’s been up there nine hours eleven minutes.”
I looked at the ceiling. No it wasn’t. Used the glance to grab a comeback. “FAA hasn’t decided how to regulate drone usage yet, so what good is that stat?”
Don’t jump in the stove, Junior. You can’t handle the kitchen.
“Oh!” he caught up, snapping fingers to dramatically emphasize his accomplishment. “Federal Aviation Administration. Clever, but this will sink your ship; Aerovironment recently received a ‘Restricted Category’ rating for the Puma AE. It’s a first-of-its-kind certificate, permits operators to fly her for commercial missions.”
He seemed to swallow harder than necessary. “Uh…so far, just the… Arctic.”
“You fight a lot of battles in the Arctic? A lot of snow battles?”
“People live there…”
“Only when their planes crash.”
My guide adjusted his tie, not that it had moved. “Alta manufactures the thinnest and most efficient solar cells in the world. Have you heard of Gallium Arsenide?”
“No. Is that your poison?” I winked. “Mine’s those chocolate-covered cheezies, the ones you get —”
“You might want to employ the microelectronics in your mobile device to semi conduct some research prior to future plant visits, sir.”
“You might want to shut up.” Oops. The filter.
John Smith flinched, clenched a fist, but then glanced at a passing co-worker and popped back into business mode. “Alta’s proprietary solar technology greatly extends the battery life of any application, and the additional weight is negligible. Alta has a couple of world records for their single and dual junction solar cell, no big deal. Their thin, mobile power technology is applied to a flexible substrate -”
“What’s proprietary mean?”
“They own it.”
“So they won’t tell. What’s a substrate?”
“I am. I mean, I would, if you had Internet here.”
“Where? America?” Without using his phone, the Cub Scout recited, “Substrate is a ‘substance or layer on which a process occurs or which underlies a thing’. He waved his hand over the Puma, like Vanna White might. “In the case of Unmanned Aerial Systems, the PV strip is applied to the top of the wing, which, by the way, has curved edges, for increased aerodynamics.”
Guy’s answer was so long I forgot what I asked him. I wanted a new tour guide. I stared the kid down (not easy to do when you’re shorter than your opponent) then I hit him with my own version of the Switchblade tactical missile system hanging on display behind him. “So, the Snipe has weapons. This thing weapons-ready?” I asked, cocking my chin toward it to look tough but trying to dissolve the situation before I went nuclear.
Puzzlement. Was this guy advocating pistols-at-dawn? I couldn’t take this kid anymore, and swiveled with a pointed finger.
“Look, Junior…if I wanted to talk to you, I’d look at your face. I’m here to hear from the cat.”
My Guide Dawg puffed his lips gang member-style and hoisted finger guns. “You wanna bring the shizzle?”
I wasn’t hungry. I pulled at my collar to vent the heat, shocked at the disrespect of kids today. Although, for a black man, his white was convincing. A guest pass gave me much, but it probably wouldn’t clear me to—
“Hey Boss, you got a message from Mark at the Facebook,” a man younger than the one I was about to fight shouted from the office. “They might want to buy us. Some kind of global domination scheme…”
“I’ll be right there.” He turned back to me. “You got everything you need?”
I hadn’t heard a big cat speak, but I had indeed seen the future. Couldn’t let this guy know that, though. I put my sunglasses on, looked to either side slowly, for effect, scanning the hangar like this state’s former Governator would. “No. I might be back.”
Back in The City, Boss was unusually invested in my story; as I related the harrowing adventure he actually looked at me. “And then it flashed its claws,” I said, “and there were some girl workers who needed protection, so… I did what any responsible reporter would do in the face of a big story. I hauled out of there.”
“You carried civilians out? Workers got hurt?”
“No, I mean I ran.”
“Into the thick of it, to get up close and personal with the action?”
“No, to get to safety.”
“Get who to safety?”
The bubbling respect popped. “You were afraid of a robot cat plane? We got you that special pass and everything. What a waste.”
“No sir,” I said, striding to the window to look out over our once-safe city. Iterations of the Puma would soon fill these skies, watching people, writing tickets, taking long-distance drink orders and launching missiles at jaywalkers. “I’ve seen the future. It’s here. And it’s powered by the oldest thing on earth.”
“No, Boss. Human Power™.” I walked back to his desk. “Now if only we could get a machine to make us coffee,” I said, crushing another bean under a sore fist.
“Yeah. Speaking of humans, Aerovironment sent a Thank You note this morning.”
I smiled. “For showing the world their awesome ideas and innovation.” It wasn’t a question.
“That, and for exposing a mole in their operation. Apparently two high school kids escaped the job fair down the road and were pretending to work there?”