The Wind Turbine That Flies Like a Helicopter

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

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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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/the-wind-turbine-that-flies-like-a-helicopter/259629/