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Michelle-B reentry
TGV Rockets is eschewing the most widely-pursued commercial suborbital market, space tourism, in favor of other applications, like imaging. (credit: TGV Rockets)

Interview: two guys at the vanguard (part 4)

Intellectual property

Renaud: People love to value their IP [intellectual property]. We’ve got a design that’s worth this much. I could publish my design on the Internet. Here it is on the web browser.

TSR: I wrote an article about that [See “Patents are not pat hands”, TSR, July 5, 2004] that Pat [Bahn, TGV Rockets CEO] called me up about. IP only allows you to sue if someone takes your plan and actually builds something.

Renaud: It’s only good for litigating it. And litigating usually ends up costing more than we would ever would have invested. If somebody could take this concept and get it funded, I’d go work with them. I’d much rather build it. The fun part is building it. If somebody wants to get it funded and run the company to do it, “I quit.” I’d go work for them.

TSR: I am sure Pat would, too.

Renaud: In a heartbeat. The only reason we started this company to build this thing is because we couldn’t go buy it. We want to operate it. We want to fly rockets. Build and fly rockets. I don’t want to start up a company. That’s nothing but pain.

TSR: But here you are.

Renaud: Doing financing is pain. It took us five years before we got a dollar in the door that wasn’t ours. That’s a long time. I think the only reason we got that dollar in was because in five years we never changed our message. We thought it through very carefully up front. We did our homework, vetted it, both technically and from a business standpoint, then went out and said, “Now let’s try to sell this.”

TSR: How did you vet it?

If somebody could take this concept and get it funded, I’d go work with them.

Renaud: The first thing we did when we wrote our business plan is we went to the MIT Enterprise Forum. They go out and get a panel of institutional investors, read your business plan, and then you get up and give them a high-level summary. Then they grill you.

It’s free. That’s a wonderful thing. See if what you have passes the business test, passes the giggle test from a business standpoint. See what an institutional investor says about their business. See if it makes sense to them. Most people don’t do that. That’s the first thing we did—no, second. The first thing we did was develop our operational cost model. Seven years and an awful lot of labor, money, and time are invested in that operational cost model.

Pilot in the loop

TSR: After you have 1,000 flights under your belt, can you put a person on there?

Renaud: We’re going to have a pilot. (We don’t actually need a pilot. We have the capability to fly it either way.) It’s designed so it’s got the fault tolerance to put the flight manager—flight controller—onboard the vehicle. It’s almost required to go to 50 to 100 miles. To operate a vehicle like that remotely successfully, you have to have a high-gain tracking antenna for your telemetry link. If you break that link, you are probably going to lose your vehicle. You have a big risk.

TSR: You’re not doing something like Armadillo Aerospace, where it’s completely on autopilot?

Renaud: Look at automatic control: automatic control for a system is very easy to do. We’re here at the airport. You go out and look at all the Cessnas out there on the ramp. They have an autopilot, a three-axis autopilot. The better ones have a GPS to navigate from one place to another with no human intervention.

TSR: Some can even land by themselves.

We go 90% of the way to autonomous control; an automatic control system where the higher functions, the decisionmaking, is still done in gray matter.

Renaud: There is a big difference between automatic control and autonomous control. To take the human decisionmaker out of the loop is a really, really tough thing to do. A human is very good at judging disparate inputs, at synthesizing. Somebody once defined intelligence as, “Making a statistically correct decision from incomplete data.” A computer can’t do that. We have had 40 years of [artificial intelligence] development.

TSR: Fuzzy logic.

Renaud: And neural nets and everything else. That’s a really, really, really hard problem. So we go 90% of the way to autonomous control; an automatic control system where the higher functions, the decisionmaking, is still done in gray matter. That’s relatively easy to do, but it requires putting the man in the loop. At least for mode select, mission parameter selection and input, and that type of thing.

FedEx flies “category three” aircraft that can takeoff and land automatically. They still have pilots and co-pilots on board. That’s got nothing to do with passengers because they’re just hauling the mail. So you need that decision maker somewhere overlooking the automatic systems. You can have him on the ground and telemeter in—but there you limit the bandwidth available per person.

TSR: You’re going to take three hundred of your kilograms and devote ’em to somebody in a spacesuit?

Renaud: I never said he was going to be in a spacesuit. We have a pilot on board.

TSR: If he’s not in a spacesuit, he’s got to have life support.

Renaud: It’s a ten-minute mission. What’s life support for a ten minute mission? A little tiny oxygen nozzle. Exoatmospheric, you don’t need heaters because heat rejection is actually a bigger problem. When you talk about life support for a ten-minute mission—

TSR: It’s not a big deal.

Renaud: It’s not a big deal. No. Taking all of the pilot display stuff and the seats, that’s some weight. But again, it improves operability to have the decisionmaker on board the aircraft. It hurts flight performance, but improves operability. Which way am I gonna go? Every time, I am going to go down that operability axis. If nothing else, it improves your mission flexibility.


TSR: If you are building something that can carry a person already, you could pull out the rest of the payload and put in another seat.

Renaud: [Nods].

TSR: Once you have the safety profile to be able to afford the insurance, you’ve got a vehicle that can support the tourism industry.

Renaud: I can take 2,000 pounds [900 kilograms] of payload. At 150, 250 pounds [70, 115 kg] per person, you do the math.

We are not saying, “We are going to risk it. We are going to start flying passengers in the Wright Flyer”. That to me sounds dangerous.

It’s not in our business plan. When we first started flying airplanes in this country commercially, we didn’t start flying passengers. Are you familiar with the Kelly Air Mail Act? It mandated that the Post Office had to buy aircraft services for all the mail because the only way you could get the air transport system up to the level of reliability that was required to haul passengers was by flying. You had to have something that would pay to fly off that learning curve.

We think we found markets that will pay to fly off our learning curve. We are not saying, “We are going to risk it. We are going to start flying passengers in the Wright Flyer.” That to me sounds dangerous.

TSR: They only killed one person in that. [While Wilbur made 100 flights in France, Orville made 10 in the US. After suffering a broken propeller, Orville crashed breaking his hip. His passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was fatally injured.]

Renaud: When you talk about tourism, we think that’s pretty far down the road. We think we’ve found something to support vehicle development right now. Seven years, we are still in operation. We are still trying to build what we said we are going to build. In seven years, we are still going to be here.