‘The potential is endless’: La Jolla resident looks to develop the next generation of drone

La Jollan Gad Shaanan and Unmanned Aerospace Chief Technology Officer Jeff Knapp stand with the prototype of the GH-4 drone.
La Jolla resident Gad Shaanan and Unmanned Aerospace Chief Technology Officer Jeff Knapp stand with the prototype of the GH-4, a hydrogen-powered gyrocopter drone capable of taking off vertically, hovering, carrying 15 pounds of cargo and traveling long distances.
(Provided by Gad Shaanan)

People in your Neighborhood


To La Jolla resident Gad Shaanan, the possibilities of drones are endless.

The small flying vehicles used by delivery companies, the military, private citizens, videographers and more are becoming more ubiquitous in modern life (even starring in La Jolla’s Fourth of July festivities this year) and are “not going anywhere,” Shaanan said.

Shaanan is the founder of Unmanned Aerospace, a company that’s looking to refine drone operations. His latest project, the GH-4, is a hydrogen-powered gyrocopter drone capable of taking off vertically and hovering.

It also can carry 15 pounds of cargo and fly through rough weather at low altitudes with little or no sound, Shaanan said. And it has been touted for providing a 150-mile flight radius for ship-to-shore delivery or a 300-mile range for ship to ship, he said.

Late last year, the GH-4 was one in a group of winners of a design competition presented by the Navy-based Joint Interagency Task Force. Shaanan said he now is in talks with the Navy about possibly upscaling and deploying the GH-4.

The Joint Interagency Task Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The industry is looking for vertical takeoff and hover with a long flight time and preferably electric,” Shaanan said. “So [in developing the GH-4] we looked at hydrogen fuel cells, which can power drones and provide six hours of flight time. That’s a lot for an electric vehicle.”

Despite creating a drone for the future, Shaanan looked 100 years into the past to gyrocopters of the 1920s.

“When a gyrocopter is in full flight, it is auto rotation, which saves a lot of energy,” he said. “Two thrusters keep it moving. Once in flight, it can do everything a helicopter can do without the complexity of a helicopter. So I invented a mechanism that can add vertical lift to a gyrocopter and designed it from the ground up.”

He said his drone — or some variant of it — could be on the commercial market in about a year but that certain elements are still being fine-tuned — namely legal and mechanical.

“The [Federal Aviation Administration] is concerned about midair accidents or drones hitting something or someone, and keeping things in the line of sight,” Shaanan said. “If you send a drone 20 miles out, it’s beyond the line of sight, and the FAA has big issues with that. So the need to fine-tune that is there.”

He added that some companies are “nervous” about using hydrogen as a power source. “People think if something hits it, you’ll end up like the Hindenburg [the famed airship that exploded in flames in 1937 while landing in Lakehurst, N.J.]. But hydrogen has to come into contact with fire to ignite; it won’t ignite on its own. So there is a lot of education to do.”

“I invented a mechanism that can add vertical lift to a gyrocopter and designed it from the ground up.”

— Gad Shaanan

In recent years, Shaanan went to trade shows to learn more about how drones could be used. Ideas included extracting wounded troops from battlegrounds; conducting surveillance; checking on dams, oil rigs, bridges and livestock; delivering items among islands when water conditions make boat travel challenging; and more.

“There are so many sectors that use drones that the potential is endless,” he said. “Drones are here to stay.”

That’s a good thing to the Israel native, who said he loves “everything that flies.”

“The funny thing is, even in my youth, I preferred designing planes over flying them,” he said.

Shaanan completed his government-required Israeli military service before moving to the United States, where he had the chance to fly a plane. But he still prefers mechanisms.

“I’d rather be designing things,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is a kitchen gadget or a plane seat. So for now I’m interested in partnering with an established drone company and continuing to develop this technology that we came up with and scaling it up and refining it as we go.”

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