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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Inventiveness takes wing

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,, 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.

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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