An old idea in search of new capital Not forgotten: "Free wing" aircraft might have been destined to be a footnote in aviation history but for a Md. inventor-entrepreneur.


It has been several years since Hugh Schmittle ditched a well-paying job as a federal crime investigator and began building -- in his living room -- the airplane he thought could significantly change the course of aviation.

Eccentric? Perhaps. But such are inventors.

Mr. Schmittle, a self-taught aviation engineer, heads up fledgling Freewing Aerial Robotics, a College Park company he co-founded in 1989. Since then, he and a small cadre of engineers have struggled to fine-tune and find backers for an old idea: the rocking wing or "free wing" aircraft, a forgotten footnote in aviation history until it lit a fire in Mr. Schmittle.

Like other struggling companies working out of the six business incubators in Maryland, he needs capital to keep going. That's why you'll find his company among 23 other lucky incubator companies invited to be showcased at the Technology Incubator Trade Show tonight.

The event, to last from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, is expected to attract private investors looking for a dream to buy into as well as executives from established companies seeking potential alliances with start-ups with a marketable idea, said Kathleen Weiss of the Greater Baltimore Technology Development Center, the event's organizer.

"The most important thing a company like Freewing can do right now is raise money," said Richard Frank, director of the Technology Advancement Program at the University of Maryland, where Freewing has been working to get its idea off the ground.

Mr. Frank believes Freewing is among those very few companies struggling away at business incubators in Maryland that have finally completed their research and testing and are ready to move into production and marketing.

Incubator companies engaged in computer-related and biotechnology-related research dominate the event this year. The field ranges from Tetrahedron, which is developing ways to clean contaminated soil, air and water, to ERS, which is developing computer software and testing systems for the electronics industry.

"I put going to these trade shows in the category of, 'You Never Know,' " said Mr. Schmittle, who grew up in Glen Burnie. "The right venture capitalist might be there who likes our idea."

Odile Legeay, Freewing's executive vice president and co-founder, said the company could use $3 million in investment capital to keep the company in a break-even position until contracts for its free wing plane rev up the cash flow.

After years of struggling along on research grants from the state and a smattering of private investment capital, Freewing has finally formed its first strategic alliance -- with French military contractor Matra -- and has struck its first deal.

The $10 million contract calls for Freewing to provide the French Navy with a line of what's called unmanned aerial vehicles -- or UAVs -- for surveillance work.

The company had planned to go into production this month at Fort Meade, which is converting its airport for civilian uses. But the conversion has been stalled while the Army determines how it should handle environmental and legal problems associated with the land.

The production hang-up and the worry about financing haven't sidetracked Mr. Schmittle from believing in the design.

It may seem a little radical to many. The free wing allows the wings to shift instead of being fixed to the fuselage as they are on all aircraft today. As a result, the wings absorb and shift with updrafts and down drafts. Also, the craft can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter.

"The free wing design reduces turbulence and makes the aircraft less prone to accidents," said Mr. Schmittle, 45, who got hooked on aviation when he took up hang-gliding. "Of course, there are obvious advantages to that."

Ben Owen, a spokesman with the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis., said, "The free wing design is a fairly well known principal. It seems to work pretty well. It's probably best suited to light aircraft.

The design, said Mr. Owen, was pretty much dismissed after the Wright brothers made history in North Carolina in 1903 by flying the first fixed-wing aircraft.

Ms. Legeay says the company has initially targeted the market for UAVs, where it believes it has a decided edge over the competition, particularly in the military market because Freewing's design reduces the amount a plane bounces around from turbulence. That improves photographic images taken for surveillance.

Among the high-risk industries Freewing has targeted for its unmanned aircrafts: hurricane tracking, power-line and pipeline inspection and commercial tuna fishing, which relies on manned helicopters to track tuna schools, even in stormy weather.

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