This story begins a few years ago. We had launched our Kickstarter Campaign in October 2016 and looking back at it now, those five weeks seem like a blur full of hard work, excitement and celebration. We managed to get a decent hype going and found almost 2,000 trusting backers who helped to make AER a reality. We used the collected funds to kick off the production of our product and quickly learned about the unforgiving nature of designing and manufacturing a physical product.
Without much prior experience in product design or material science, we had begun the design process of our product rather naively. We were basically just building different contraptions out of materials like cardboard, duct tape, 3D-prints and repurposed children’s toys. We then proceeded to stick our GoPro in them, throw them and then called that prototyping. Once we were happy with the general design direction we started to look into different mass-producible materials and quickly stumbled upon EPP-foam. We started to build more sophisticated prototypes and eventually CNC-drilled one out of a solid block of EPP-foam. This prototype was meant to test the durability of the foam. We wanted to see how quickly our prototype (and potential future product) would break if it landed on a hard surface. It didn’t take many throws of testing to find out: It breaks easily. But, inexperienced and naive as we were, we didn’t let that stop us. We kept telling ourselves: "Oh, that’s just because this was a CNC drilled prototype - once we have it made in a real molding tool it will be much more durable!” Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Shortly after the end of the Kickstarter campaign we had our EPP molds manufactured and another couple of weeks later, the first products were produced. I will never forget the day we held the first real AER in our hands. The EPP-foam felt and looked great and the GoPro fit perfectly. Our excitement was through the roof, but it was quickly followed by a major disappointment. We were still at our manufacturer’s facility but couldn’t wait to throw the AER. So we directly went out into the parking lot, followed by the engineers, managers and other workers who were all curious about this crazy new product they had just begun to produce for us. My co-founder and I started throwing the AER back and forth, perfectly catching it every time while slowly increasing the distance between us. Once we were about ten meters away from each other I said: “We gotta see what happens if we let it fall.”- so when the AER was coming towards me, instead of catching it, I took a step to the side and let it drop onto the harsh asphalt underneath me.
It didn’t just break a little bit. The AER literally exploded into several pieces. The impact was way too strong and the foam snapped apart. In further, more elaborate testing we found that it would always break apart at the same spot. That weak point was the “thinnest” part of the AER Wings, the spot where we nowadays have the AER Strap, which back then didn’t exist yet. We were obviously very disappointed with the durability and knew that we couldn’t deliver a product that would break so easily - a devastating realization if you keep in mind that we had 2,000 customers who had already paid for the product and were expecting it to be shipped soon.
Something had to be done. So we went back to the drawing board to come up with a solution to make AER more durable. This was challenging because our options to make adjustments were limited by the existing molds. Changing the materials wasn’t an option, neither was changing the general shape. What was possible though, was adding an additional part to strengthen the structure. We came up with an H-profile rod that would be incorporated into one of the Wings to prevent it from bending and thus, from breaking. The material needed to be stiff and light-weight, so we decided to go with carbon fiber.
This approach meant that we had to adjust our EPP mold, invest in a new tool for the carbon fiber extrusion and it made the assembly of the AERs significantly more complicated and expensive. But, in combination with the new AER Strap, it solved our problem. The AER was now more durable:
After this redesign, the introduction of two new parts and months of delay, we were finally ready to ship out the products to our backers in the fall of 2017. Even though the AER is certainly not indestructible, we’re now very delighted with the durability, we’re able to produce and sell many more since then. If certain precautions are taken and the AER is used correctly, our customers have long-lasting fun with it and are able to create amazing aerial shots.
We recently cleaned up our warehouse and stumbled upon a few boxes full of Wings from that initial production run. Those Wings were produced before we did any of the modifications and therefore don’t have the carbon fiber reinforcement. This means they aren’t very durable and are going to break easily, but aside from that, they work just fine. So naturally we don’t want to just throw them out now, and would much rather see them being used. So from now on, we’re offering them for a discounted price in our shop. For an additional € 20, you can now add a pair of ‘Foam Wings’ to your AER order. This is great for those risky shots that you’d like to try, but don’t want to risk damaging your ‘real’ Wings on. Or as a backup, as long as you stay on forgiving surfaces like water.
By the way, you can also follow along this story by browsing through our Kickstarter Updates. Because while all of this was happening, we also had to keep our backers up to date, so we posted incremental updates about our progress while redesigning the AER. All in all, this was probably the most stressful and challenging, but also the most character-shaping, fulfilling and rewarding time of my life. We aimed high and crashed hard. Then we got back up, adjusted the aim and tried again - something I’m very proud of.