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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Inventiveness takes wing

By THOMAS S. BROWN
News-Journal Business Writer

DAYTONA BEACH — Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it an insect?

Call the flying toy anything you want, says Sean Frawley, an Embry-Riddle student who invented the gizmo. He just hopes the radio-controlled oddity with flapping wings will be flying off store shelves next year after a Hong Kong toy company starts production.

News-Journal Photo
Sean Frawley flies his “Dragonfly,” a radio-controlled toy with flapping wings, at the Embry-Riddle campus. A Canadian company operating in Hong Kong plans to market Frawley´s creation. (Photo: News-Journal/Nigel Cook)

“We don´t know yet exactly when it will hit the market, but we´re working on getting it out in time for next Christmas,” Frawley said.

His product technically is known as an “ornithopter” -- an experimental flying device powered by flapping wings. Weighing just an ounce, the craft has a fuselage and tail fashioned from plastic foam and double wings made of cellophane stretched on a foam frame. A battery-powered motor moves the wings, and a handheld radio control governs the gadget´s speed and direction.

“It can go as high as 200 feet but then you run into a problem of seeing it,” he said. “It´s kind of small.”

Frawley, 21, started selling a primitive version of the invention about five years ago when he was still in high school in Warwick, N.Y. It was a build-it-yourself, balsa-wood model powered by rubber bands, and it retailed in the $15 to $20 range.

Sold only through a Web site Frawley operated with a buddy, www.ornitech.com, the ornithopter at first had spotty sales, mainly to adults who were model-airplane enthusiasts. But after Popular Science magazine featured his toy-building efforts in a June 2002 issue, more than 1,000 orders poured in.

The article also caught the attention of several toymakers, who contacted Frawley with job offers. The one that Frawley accepted was a consulting deal with WowWee Ltd., a Canadian company operating in Hong Kong. WowWee promised him a cut of 6 percent to 8 percent of the profits on anything he designed.

Since then, Frawley has been working on prototypes for the Dragonfly and the Swallow Ornithopters, radio-controlled ultra-light flying toys aimed at the pre-teen market for both indoor and outdoor use.

“They have to meet a lot of safety standards,” he said. They also have to be extremely crashproof.

“These are meant to be abused by 7-year-olds,” he said.

Frawley has been doing most of his design work on campus, spending about two hours a day on WowWee projects while also taking courses for a degree in aeronautical engineering. He served a three-month internship at the WowWee office in Hong Kong last summer and will be returning there after he graduates next month.

“What I like about WowWee is that their people are engineers and they´re focused on high-tech,” he said. “Most other toy companies are run by artists.”

Wow Wee is best known for its Robosapien, a programmable black-and-white talking robot found in most local toy departments. More than 2 million Robosapiens have seen sold since they were introduced last year.

Like many other toy companies, WowWee farms out its production work to low-cost factories in China and then ships the products to North America and Europe.

Another budding toy developer with an Asian connection is Joanna McKenney, a New Smyrna Beach grandmother who is building a part-time plush toy business, Snuglettes and Co., while she takes business classes at Stetson University.

She designs Hug dolls and other smiling, long-armed blobs that are used for therapy with ill or disabled children.

McKenna contracted with a Chinese factory to produce a trial run of 500 dolls last year. She has been giving them as free samples to hospitals, orphanages and other charities while she works on setting up a retail Web site and a distribution network.

Her next goal is to expand into making clothing for special-needs children. That, too, will probably be manufactured in China, she said.

“It would be wonderful if this could be done locally, but it´s just not cost-effective,” she said.

McKenna visited the Chinese-American Development Center in New York City to get help in finding factories that meet western fair-labor standards.

“I didn´t want my products being made by people who would be as young as my own grandchildren,” she said.

Serial Story: INVENTION MYSTERIES
This story is part of the Invention Mysteries series by author Paul Niemann. The Invention Mysteries book reveals the little-known stories behind 47 well-known inventions.

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