Everyone remembers making paper airplanes, typically during a mind-numbing school lesson. Whose heart wasn’t lifted by the joy of turning a piece of paper, with a few folds, into a plane and watching it soar? But while most of us forget that childhood joy, an Israeli entrepreneur and former IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) pilot has turned it into one of Kickstarter’s most successful campaigns.
In just eight hours back in January Shai Goitein fully funded his dream of producing the world’s first smartphone-controlled paper airplane. The campaign went on to raise a total of $1,232,612, dramatically outstripping the $50,000 he was seeking. Called PowerUp 3.0, the $49.99 product turns a sheet of paper into a remote-controlled plane by adding a tiny electric motor, a battery pack and communication pack and a tiny rudder. It is all controlled over a Bluetooth connection by a smartphone. What’s not to love?
“If you look at kids, they don’t play with toys anymore, they play with gadgets,” says Goitein. “They play with iPhones. I have a six-year-old girl. Kids stop playing at the age of eight and [even younger]. They play with computers and iPads. They are using high-end gadgets to fulfill their excitement.”
“It is very challenging for the toy industry to compete with that kind of thing,” says Goitein. “When you look at how long kids plays with toys it can be measured in seconds.” This idea of toys that update and change in their lifetime is something that Goitein thinks is fundamental. “Normally you go out and you buy something [that] doesn’t change, but toys are going through major change and people are not realizing it.”
The secret, he says, is to use products that interface with iPhones. “Once you integrate the physical with the digital you can give it a much broader play pattern. It’s not just that; you can do much more with it. It can evolve.”
The genesis of Goitein’s PowerUp smartphone-controlled paper airplane goes all the way back to 2008 when, having graduated from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and completed his Air Force service, he was asked to help out with a community project.
“I was working with some young kids that immigrated to the country from Ethiopia,” he says referring to the decision by the Israeli government to bring Ethiopians of Jewish faith to the country. “I worked with these youngsters in teaching them aerodynamics.”
At the time Goitein was living between Tel Aviv and Haifa and had some more free time. “I felt I could contribute,” he says. “Sometimes you give and you get back so much more back.”
As a reserve pilot with the IDF it seemed natural to teach the children about flight. It was while preparing the lessons, he says, that he came up with the idea for the PowerUp paper plane. “I learned all about these micro-flight things that were happening, microelectronics, materials and lightweight motors and batteries,” says Goitein. “This was an interesting time because the cellular technology that emerged at that time made a big shift in miniaturization and [and the same time] all these different technologies were being commoditized: micro-motors, and tiny batteries and of course controllers. So I had this ‘eureka’ moment: let’s put all this stuff together into a paper airplane and sell them.”
Quit The Job
His first attempt was not a success. “It was still too expensive and we were trying to sell to a company that was mass market and we had some pricing barriers” he says.
Undaunted, Goitein persevered, tinkering away to cut costs and finding ways of improving the product, but it was hard. “This was in 2008, during the collapse of the market,” he says. “No one was interested in anything.” Like so many entrepreneurs before him, Goitein had to make a tough choice: hold fast to his dream because he was so convinced that the world really wants an electric-powered paper plane, or throw in the towel and concentrate on his day job at Kodak. It was an easy call.
“I flew over to China with $12,000 of my own money,” says Goitein. “Together with a Chinese company we made a product — which was not controllable — produced 3,000 of them and sent them to Amazon ahead of Christmas.”
It was an anxious time. Would the plane soar, or crash and burn? Goitein needn’t have worried. “It had an amazing buzz. It reached one of the highest ranks in Amazon.”
The first version of the concept had a small electric motor that would fly for a minute. “That was amazing because the world record was like 25 seconds,” he says. ”We won a few awards.” In 2012, PowerUp 1.0 won the ATA Best Hobby Award.
Spurred on by the success Goitein returned to the workshop. It took several years to perfect the final version. “Eventually in early 2013 I decided to bring back the remote control and I met this start-up company that does Bluetooth. We worked together on integrating Bluetooth Smart technology as well as developing an app. “We were able not just to make a remote control airplane but also Bluetooth control, giving it much more functionality.”
Lest anyone think this is just a question of sticking a motor and battery onto a plane and watching it fly, there is a lot more to it than that. It took an aerospace engineer to figure out how to transform a flying object made out of folded paper into something that is both accurate and stable. “What we did was to add a really smart way of connecting the module to your airplane universally,” says Goitein. “The module needs to be something you connect in one second and it just works. We also made everything really light and miniaturized and also extremely powerful. We also added a very small, micro rudder that gives you vectoring right and left.”
Dogfight Mode In Development
The connection to the smartphone makes the toy far more sophisticated than a regular remote control plane, which can only send a signal one way. The PowerUp sends signals back to the smartphone, relaying the amount of battery power, amount of fuel and the actual thrust of the propeller. What’s more a lot of computational algorithms are done on the smartphone and sent to the module
“When you are flying a paper airplane, every one is a bit different, so we are providing different ways of auto-calibrating your plane through your smartphone.” Goitein says. “Turning adds thrust automatically and automatically reduces the torque of the propeller. The customer has no idea about this, they are just twisting their smartphone right and left and we do everything else.”
Unlike traditional aircraft that have flaps and ailerons to allow them to climb or descend, Goitein’s paper plane had to be simpler. “I didn’t want anyone tearing the paper,” he says. With his years of flying experience he knew that there were other ways of getting a plane to go up and down. “The more thrust you have, that changes the angle of attack of the aircraft,” he says.
Already the plane has had some upgrades, and since it uses an app and embedded controllers, updating the firmware is relatively simple. For example, the company is currently developing a dogfight mode.
A Paper Airplane With A Camera…
With other flying devices like Quadcopters on the market today, Goitein is under pressure to add new features. As part of its Kickstarter campaign he asked people what the “stretch goal” should be? One that came up time and again was a camera. Essentially people wanted an electric-powered paper-plane drone all for $49. That’s a challenge.
Aside from the form factor and the weight, Bluetooth can’t relay streaming video due to bandwidth. But it could work with Wi-Fi. While it is not something Goitein is focusing on now he doesn’t rule it out.
“Everyone loves the idea. A paper plane flying and guided by a smartphone — that is trivial right? But a paper airplane with a camera…”