“A lot of kids grow up loving airplanes, but I actually get to play with them as a grown-up—and I get paid!” That’s how Jos Cocquytsums up his work as an R&D engineer at AeroVironment Inc., in Simi Valley, Calif., the world’s leading maker of small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The U.S. military has come to rely on these portable robotic spy planes, which come equipped with Global Positioning System technology and cameras for discreetly monitoring activities many kilometers away. On any given day, you’ll find hundreds of AeroVironment UAVs circling over Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas where U.S. troops are deployed. The small planes can relay such mundane information as street and building locations, as well as more critical data, like the presence of enemy troops.
Ironically, Cocquyt’s engineering career almost didn’t get off the ground. “I grew up in Belgium, where they give you tests to measure your competencies,” he says. “I always scored really low in math, so I never thought of being an engineer.” During high school, he moved to Florida with his father, and after graduating, he went to work for his dad, who built high-end racing boats.
Cocquyt’s first love, though, was airplanes. “That was my passion,” he says. “I was one of those kids who always played with model planes.” And so, in 1997, he started working with Charlie Wolff, whose company, Velox Aviation Inc., in Stuart, Fla., built single- and two-seater aerobatic airplanes used in competitions and air shows. “Those were really cool planes,” Cocquyt recalls. “We built the entire body from composites. When we started, there were no other all-composite planes in that class.” Materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar made the planes lightweight and extremely stiff and strong—essential features for executing precise midair maneuvers. “They give you a light airplane that you can’t break,” he explains.
Those two jobs gave Cocquyt the confidence to return to school. While still working full-time for Velox, he enrolled at a local community college, earning his associate’s degree in 2000. He then matriculated at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, where he majored in aerospace engineering. And the math? Not a problem, Cocquyt says, laughing. “I even ended up tutoring other students in calculus. I guess some competence tests don’t really test your competence.”
While at Gainesville, he got a part-time job in the lab of Peter Ifju, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor whose group works on micro air vehicles. These tiny fliers weigh less than 100 grams and perform a wide range of applications, from surveillance to search and rescue. Each year, Ifju’s students enter the International Micro Aerial Vehicle Competition, where university teams field MAVs to complete particular missions. The smallest craft that finishes, wins.
“We won all four years I was there,” Cocquyt says. The competitions and research experience really gave him a leg up in his career, he adds. “A lot of kids don’t get involved in school; they just go to class. I was getting ten bucks an hour to do research—I could’ve made the same money delivering pizzas, but you don’t get much out of that.”
Cocquyt graduated from the University of Florida in 2004 and considered going to grad school. Instead, he applied for a job at AeroVironment. “It’s kind of the dream company in this field,” he says. “There was always a judge from AeroVironment at the MAV competitions, and we read all [the company’s] papers in school.”
Founded 35 years ago, AeroVironment is known for building energy-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. In 2001, its solar-powered UAV, called Helios, set a world record by flying to an altitude of more than 29 500 meters. Working with General Motors Corp., the company also designed the first modern electric car, which became the basis for GM’s EV1 model.
A few months after joining the company, Cocquyt was tapped to lead a new project called Puma. A battery-powered UAV with a wingspan of about 3 meters, Puma looks like a much larger and fancier version of those balsa-wood model planes that the old five-and-ten stores used to sell. But Puma can carry both an infrared and a regular color camera and stay aloft for several hours at a time.
Like all of AeroVironment’s small UAVs, Puma can be assembled without tools and launched by hand; no special launch apparatus or runways are required. Once back on the ground, it can be broken down in less than a minute into eight pieces that fit neatly into a pair of rifle cases—a key convenience for troops using the planes in far-flung locales. Cocquyt’s six-person team is now working on making the craft waterproof.
As the Puma team’s leader, Cocquyt wears many hats—from hands-on designer to meeter and greeter of customers. The best part of his job, he says, are the flight-test days, when the team goes out in the field to try new designs under real-world conditions. “It’s exciting because things can and do go wrong.”
AeroVironment fosters an atmosphere in which sorting out problems and proposing new ventures is a healthy part of the process—and that can encompass employees’ personal projects, too. Cocquyt recently made ample use of the company’s machine shop to rebuild the engine of his 1972 Karmann Ghia. “If you’re interested in a particular field that’s related to the company business, they may give you some money to pursue it, and you can even employ people to work with you,” Cocquyt says. He appreciates that kind of encouragement.
“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I work at the Pixar Studios of aerospace engineering. It’s very creative, very open-minded.”
Jos Cocquyt (M)
WHAT HE DOES: Designs small, unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military for surveillance.
FOR WHOM: AeroVironment Inc.
WHERE HE DOES IT: Simi Valley, Calif.
FUN FACTORS: Travels to remote locales to test out new spy planes, gets company support for personal projects that are relevant to the business.