How a St. Louis drone company is creating new defense capabilities   

This is the final installment in a three-part series around St. Louis drone company WingXpand, told through a Q&A with Chief Customer Officer Michelle Madaras. In part one, she shared an inside look at her company’s unique, telescoping drone design. WingXpand’s drone is a 7-foot wide autonomous airplane, but it fits into a backpack through its patented, expanding wings.  In part 2, she revealed that her company is on a big hiring spree (and offered tips on how to get hired as a drone pilot). And now, we hone in one the company’s contributions to modernizing the U.S. military.

The WingXpand drone has caught the attention of all sorts of folks who dole out awards, people seeking better tech in their own fleets, and people with grant money to give to innovators. In 2022, WingXpand was one of 12 businesses competitively selected out of more than 600 international companies to participate in Techstars Los Angeles, which is a global investment business that provides access to capital, one-on-one mentorship, a worldwide network and customized programming for early-stage entrepreneurs. That same year, the St. Louis drone company was chosen as a 2022 ‘St. Louis Arch Grants’ recipient.

In April 2023, WingXpand was named a finalist in the U.S. Army xTechSearch 7 competition, where it will participate in the xTech Accelerator program. As one of the top 20 finalists, WingXpand will present its technology to a panel of Army experts, compete for additional prizes, and have the opportunity to collaborate with the Army on future projects.

WingXpand cofounders James Barbieri and Michelle Madaras.
Photo courtesy of WingXpand.

And it has also piqued the interest of the U.S. government, in part from its startup accelerator experience that was in partnership with the U.S. Space Force and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  With that, WingXpand joins other American drone companies that had roots in commercial applications, such as Utah-based Teal, in catching the attention of the defense community.

In fact, WingXpand recently flight tested with U.S. government entities and has received written support. And now, the St. Louis, Missouri-based drone company has a contract with the government to develop new software capabilities.

Madaras shares how her company got involved in working with the government, and provides guidance into how other small businesses might be able to achieve similar contracts.

This interview with Michelle Madaras was edited for clarity and length. Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here.

Drone Girl: Your company, WingXpand has been rapidly growing, and you capped off 2022 on an incredible note with awards for ‘Most Innovative Technology of the Year’ out of more than 300 companies and organizations at the Natural Disaster Expo in Anaheim, as well as ‘Top Company for Women in Emerging Aviation Technology‘ from Women and Drones, which was awarded at CES 2023. That’s all despite the fact that you only publicly launched in April 2022.

There are a lot of reasons that WingXpand stands out, such as the unique, telescoping design of the wings. But another — and perhaps a result of WingXpand standing out — is that WingXpand scored a pretty interesting contract with the government. Tell us about that.

Michelle Madaras: We’re participating in the Small Business Innovation Research program, which is a U.S. government funding program. It’s essentially a contract mechanism for small businesses to work with the government.

Michelle Madaras, co-founder of St. Louis drone company WingXpand
Michelle Madaras, Chief Customer Officer at St. Louis drone company WingXpand. Photo courtesy of WingXpand.

DG: And it’s all coordinated by the Small Business Administration, intended to help certain small businesses conduct research and development, which is funded either by grants or contacts, which is what you have. How did you get involved in that?

MM: With the SBIR program, government entities write what their needs are. You then go in and apply to these opportunities based on what you bring to the table. You make a proposal in a sort of competition, and then the government selects which company they want to work for based on their qualifications.

We went through that competition process and they chose to work with us.

DG: What was in your presentation?

MM: When you put together a proposal, you’re putting together things like timelines, schedules and monetary estimates to create that product. It’s a concept that we proposed, they liked the idea, and we hope to execute well on that.

DG: The SBIR program has really been leaning into drones. I just saw in January 2023 that another aerial innovator, Electra, was also selected by the U.S. Air Force AFWERX innovation arm for a Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) award that secures up to $85 million between private investments, government funding, and matching SBIR funding. That’s all toward Electra’s development of a full-scale pre-production prototype electric short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft. 

So what is it that WingXpand building?

MM:  We make the aircraft which carries a camera and there’s also a computer onboard our aircraft. It operates almost like a computer brain. We want to make sense of what the camera is seeing, so we’re working on writing that software capability.

DG: What does this mean for WingXpand’s potential growth?

MM: The Department of Defense is a very big place, and we’re building it for a specific team. But, it brings the possibility to work with other teams afterwards.

DG: You’re a U.S.-based small business with only about a dozen employees. Would you recommend other startups like yours follow a similar path and perhaps also consider participating in the SBIR program?

MM: There are a lot of drone companies developing hardware or software for drones, but security is often a big issue, particularly for the U.S. government. Oftentimes — and especially given the climate right now — the government is looking to support businesses that in turn can support their needs.

Especially when it comes to the fact that we’re made in the U.S. and we comply with national security guidelines— the government values that.

DG: Yeah, I wanted to talk about that. There’s high interest in drones made in America. In fact, my web page about U.S. drone companies is one of the most-viewed pages on my site overall.

MM: The materials physically used to make our airframe were made and manufactured in the U.S. As far as the sub-components like cameras and batteries, we make sure those are NDAA compliant. 

DG: For folks who don’t know what that means, that’s in reference to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in 2019. Under Section 889 of the NDAA, United States federal entities, recipients of grants or loans, and contractors are prohibited from using equipment or products banned by the United States, all in an effort to ensure government-used products are safe and secure, particularly when it comes to data-sharing.

They don’t have to specifically be made in the U.S., but the parts are deemed “safe to use” by government agencies and enterprises. 

MM: Right, so we make sure all of our subcomponents meet that list, to ensure that we’re building a secure drone from the bottom up. Especially for our government entity clients, we make sure that’s an utmost priority. But even on the commercial side, it’s important.

DG: Do you find that enterprise companies also value NDAA compliance?

MM: We’re working with a lot of professional organizations that have security risks or concerns of their own. Sometimes making sure that you’re taking that extra step — which in our case is NDAA compliance — can bring value. It’s not only from a security sense but a political sense.

DG: Of course, drones made in America are typically more expensive, especially versus drones made in China. How do your non-government customers respond to that?

MM: To each party their own. Price always plays a role in decision-making. But just the same way that people pick places to shop over others, many in the drone industry prefer to buy drones made in America.

Michelle Madaras at CES in Las Vegas.

DG: Where are your drones built?

MM: Most of our manufacturing is being done in St. Louis for now. As demand rises, we’re looking at other opportunities to expand.

DG: Whether a company is seeking a government contract or wants to work in the commercial side, what’s your advice for drone startups that want to mirror the trajectory of yours?

MM: It’s cool to have a cool product, but you need to make sure you’re solving a customer pain point. As we get into the markets and try to understand the customer needs, we really do care. We sit down and try to understand what they’re really experiencing out in the field.

DG: Totally! I get pitches of so many drone products where I’m just like, what is this even for?

MM: Right. Ask those questions and interpret the answer, and then test how those solutions come together. That’s going to make for a successful product.

DG: And of course, it seems like what most people want isn’t really even the drone, but the data it can provide.

MM: And that’s why it’s so important to make the industry approachable. If we want to have success in the industry, it’s bringing more end users in — and that’s not necessarily the people who fly or even see the drones. You and I see the value that drones can provide, but it can be confusing and frustrating for end users, particularly those new to drones, how to actually get the data they want. That’s where we make a huge difference for the client.

St. Louis drone company WingXpand is set to attend and display its aircraft at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL 2023 conference this May in Denver, Colorado, which is one of the largest drone events happening in the world this year. There, you’ll be able to meet folks who already work for the company.

This article was Part 3 of a 3-part series interviewing Michelle Madaras.

Read Part 1: “How to make a 7-foot wide drone fit in a backpack” and Part 2: “Want to get hired as a drone pilot? Have these traits and skills” here.

If you know an awesome drone girl I should profile, contact me here.

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