The Wind Turbine That Flies Like a Helicopter

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Meet Corwin Hardham, Makani Power's CEO.

Corwin Hardham doesn't usually drive to the company he runs, Makani Power. He doesn't always bike either. "I've windsurfed to work," the ultrafit CEO told me. " I've kitesurfed to work. I've stand-up paddled to work."

Luckily for him, his company's offices are located on old naval base on the little island of Alameda, which sits an industrial channel away from Oakland. There, in a building that looks like a backdrop for the movie Top Gun complete with control tower and waving palm trees, Hardham is trying to lead his company through the startup valley of death.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal in conversation with entrepreneurs shaping our future. See full coverage

Makani has a new way of generating power from the wind. Makani has a flying wind machine. It looks like a wing with two propellers and some landing gear, and in all honesty, that's precisely what it is. The machine takes off like a helicopter and then moves into position hundreds of feet up in the air (later models will go even higher).  At that point, the propellers its been using to move switch their role and become the blades for the wind generator that flies aboard the wing.

As you can imagine, this futuristic-sounding idea has been met with a dissonant chorus of awe, appreciation, and dubiousness. This is precisely what disruption innovation looks like. These people, holed up in this funny building, are trying to do something fundamentally new, and that's really, really hard.

The company's been backed by Google and the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency, but scaling up this kind of technology takes a lot of money and time. Technically, things are proceeding apace, but like so many promising new generation technologies, Makani will need to raise more cash to bring its wing to market.

Hardham himself is a Stanford-trained engineer and his team is filled with brilliant technologists, most of them, it seems, packing degrees from Palo Alto or Cambridge. But their collective job now is convincing the suits who know more about Excel than avionics that it's worth backing a radical new way of producing electricity.

Stay tuned for the next two segments of my interview with Hardham, which will debut next week.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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