PODCAST: Flying in the Palm of Your Hand
Sometimes the coolest inventions are right at your fingertips. The Finger Flyer Hoverboard is a fun toy, but it’s also a great teaching tool that explores aerodynamics. Find out how we helped manufacture this remote control-free quadcopter drone, and how a car ride turned a college student into an entrepreneur. Guest: Jake Parker, inventor of the Finger Flyer Hoverboard.
Steve Konick: Hi and welcome to the Digital Thread. Protolabs’ podcast that gives you insights into the latest and best practices in manufacturing. Over the course of the series, we'll talk about new trends in manufacturing technologies and strategies, cool products and companies that are pushing boundaries with innovative ideas. And we’ll provide some design tips to improve how you and your manufacturer work together.
Jake Parker: Anyone who says they just know how to do stuff, I think they're just being a jerk. I think it always takes just hard work and research and—you know—pushing and trying to hack it for lack of a better word or a better way to describe it.
Steve Konick: I'm your host, Steve Konick. When I was a kid, I had a model airplane that took weeks to build. On its first flight, within seconds, the plane plummeted to the ground nose first. And I was devastated. But on that day, I learned a lot about how flight works and doesn't work. Today, drones are everywhere and we have the Finger Flyer Hoverboard, a quadcopter drone without a remote control. It's a toy and a learning opportunity. Joining us to talk about it is its inventor, Jake Parker. It's great to have you here, Jake.
Jake Parker: Glad to be here, Steve. Thanks for having me.
Steve Konick: Great, so let's talk about the Finger Flyer Hoverboard. For audience members who don't know, tell us what a quadcopter is and where did the idea come from?
Jake Parker: Sure. So the term quadcopter refers to any aerial vehicle that consists of four propellers. Growing up, I was always fascinated with quadcopter technology. But much like your experience, my first time flying traditional drones ended in disappointment. They were tedious, finicky, and the learning curve was very steep, especially for someone who was young like me. I knew there had to be a better way to introduce people to quadcopter drone flight. And my Eureka moment hit when I was surfing the wind with my hand out the moving car window, as people often do. And I thought, what if you could redefine quadcopter operation in flight by putting the power of flight literally at the fingertips like a hoverboard for the hand?
Steve Konick: Wow, so that's fascinating to me that this just came from this random moment of you being in a car with your hand out the window like everybody else does, just, you know, catching the wind and letting it flow. So you created the Finger Flyer while you're still in college, right? Tell us about that.
Jake Parker: Yeah, the idea was born sometime around my freshman year at Georgia Tech, and it really took shape throughout this last year when we started manufacturing with Protolabs. Before that, it was just a college kid dream and a whole lot of time.
Steve Konick: Yeah, college kids have nothing but time. I think that's what you're trying to tell me here, is that it? So I guess what it comes down to is you have kind of an entrepreneurial bent.
Jake Parker: Yeah, I would say so, I think I've seen too many cases of corporate politics beating the life and passion out of family and friends. So I think that along the way, I just thought, well, they have a lot to learn in industry, but certainly I'd like to have that financial freedom and make my own path.
Steve Konick: When did it start for you, you said in your freshman year you started coming up with the concept, when did it become something that you had to worry about financially and get backing?
Jake Parker: Yeah, I'd say during the prototype phase, it was something that, you know, I was able to cover mostly by myself, but right around when I guess when patents came into picture trying to lock up that intellectual property, that's when it definitely became real in terms of, you know, the finances required. You know, there's a lot that can be done if you know how to do drawings and if you write it myself. And the first time I went into a patent attorney, I had a draft of the patent already done. I just didn't know how to submit it. And basically he said, well, this is useless. We're going to have to rewrite it ourselves. And so I went back to the drawing board. I did it again. And then I found somebody who saw it, the second draft and said, this is really good. We're still going to charge you the same amount. So fast forward found another guy and I ended up getting away with a fraction of what you what you'd pay just by figuring out off the cuff and flashforward, now it's it's granted patent, so.
Steve Konick: Was there a moment there where you wondered, is this even going to take off for me? I can't even get past the drawing board, literally.
Jake Parker: Yeah, I think once, you know, I had the idea in the car and I think after that, you know, once the prototype, even the very early crude prototype just demonstrated, oh, this form of control works, you know, you can use your hands to, you know, surf the wind with a quadcopter. That that moment was pretty pivotal in saying, OK, let's move forward with this, because at least it works. You know, this technology can be developed out. It was just enough to know this is worth moving forward with.
Steve Konick: It's fascinating that you went from just a hand in the wind to a quadcopter somewhere in your head, that that clicked for you. Is this the first thing that you've designed that's available for wide distribution?
Jake Parker: Yes, this is the first, it definitely won't be the last. I often used to say that, you know, in the early days of Finger Flyer that whether or not, you know, this company fails or succeeds, I'll always be looking forward to the next great opportunity. And the only difference is if I'll have the funding or not from this venture.
Steve Konick: Did you have to hit the books or did you already know a lot about the core tech here, like aerodynamics and handsfree controls?
Jake Parker: Yeah, that's a really great question. You know, along the way, if you had to ask me, I would have given you a different answer based on what the foremost problem was or challenge was. So, you know, before anything was patented, before anything was manufactured, before anything was, you know, produced and delivered and fulfilled all over the country, it seemed like something that was not possible. You know, we don't most people, even with an engineering background, don't get that kind of experience and guidance. And it always seemed like something that was not possible, you know, let alone for someone who's experienced and been in industry and, you know, not a college kid. And I think each time the problem was solved. Right. And the challenge was overcome. I realized that really anyone who says they just know how to do stuff, I think they're just being a jerk. I think it always takes just hard work and research and, you know, pushing and trying to trying to hack it for lack of a better, better word or a better way to describe it.
Steve Konick: Did your professors help you at all with the project?
Jake Parker: Yeah, so the one experience that stands out the most was I had in the early phases, you know, I was trying to go through one of their programs and one of the professors said, there's no way you're going to be able to build this. I don't get it. You're never you're never going to. Not only are you never going to sell it, I don't get it. And you can't do it. You will not be able to build it. And, you know, that's kind of a kick in the loins for a freshman who's trying to seek advice from, you know, I'm I'm paying him to give me advice. And that's what he gives me. You know, it wasn't doing it to be mean. He really thought that I couldn't. And, you know, I suppose that if I had a given up then he would have, you know. Well, he definitely would have been right if I never tried. Flashforward, I think a year, Georgia Tech has its own shark tank. And so I went up and pitched live and was approached by a lot of different investors that evaluated it at about, I think, at the highest evaluation, someone tried to buy in at half a million dollars. Then I had the dean of engineering, so his boss, reached out to me and say, you should really consider dropping out and doing this full time in the span of a year. So. Yes and no, they were helpful, unhelpful, everything in between, you know, I think they're just people. And I think that's kind of the theme of what I'm what I'm saying with like, you know, we're all just trying to hack it. Everyone has to work and figure things out. Anyone who says, oh, I'm just smart, I just get it. They're either being a jerk and have done a bunch of research or they really don't know what's in store for them.
Steve Konick: So there's a lot of competition these days in the consumer electronics drone market. So what makes Finger Flyers stand out compared to the others?
Jake Parker: That's a great question. We have three patent applications, one fully granted U.S. utility patent and then two international PCT filings. Mostly the patent claims cover what we call the finger port board, which is what you'd use to control the Finger Flyer during flight as opposed to a traditional remote control, much like a little hoverboard in the air. Additionally, there is also gesture control sensors and a cutting edge barometer-hover control. On top of that leading battery time and unmatched durability, all for $40, which really sets us apart from anything on the market.
Steve Konick: You said a barometer. I missed the second word—a barometer control? So somehow it's using atmospheric pressure as well to determine how it should fly.
Jake Parker: Yes, exactly, so there's a barometer control that kind of modulates the hovering on where the user wants it to be, you know, riding it. And, you know, we we've done a lot of work to develop how the air flows as opposed to, you know, other drones out there, how the air is actually flowing into the drone and out of the drone with different wind routing to make sure that you get the most accurate reading. And, you know, if you take any other drone and barometer on the mark and throw it up next to ours, you're going to be able to tell the difference without going into too much of the technical mumbo jumbo. You'd be able to see that.
Steve Konick: Oh, go ahead. Give us a little technical mumbo jumbo if you want to.
Jake Parker: Sure. So when you're when you're taking a pressure reading, if you have you know, it's essentially when you're determining your altitude in the air, you're taking the pressure. Right. Of that air pressure. And so if you're, if the wind is blowing on it and into it, you can imagine that would that would throw off the pressure reading by any kind of velocity going over it. So really, what you want to get the most accurate pressure reading is you want it to be a static pressure reading, which means not moving. In reality, when you have a drone, it's going to be moving. And so, you know, what we did is we with some of some of our proprietary technology, developed a way for it to basically be moving as fast as it wants to. Right. To get that that awesome flight that everyone's looking for, but still keep that super accurate pressure reading based on how we're routing the air to the parameter.
Steve Konick: I want to get back into the device because it really is insanely cool tech, you're used to seeing remote controls for drones, but this one doesn't have one. So how do you direct the flight of a Finger Flyer hoverboard?
Jake Parker: Yeah, that's a great question, the the Finger Flyer is controlled by both physical contact of a user's fingers and what we call the finger port board and also a matrix of gesture sensors that surround the drone. There's also preprogrammed flight paths and maneuvers that are activated using specific gesture and finger movements. But believe it or not, the Finger Flyer can do more than a regular quadcopter, it can perform tricks, flips, spins, be passed to friends and more, it's a whole new way to interact with quadcopters that allows a shared user experience as well, which is not something that's possible with a standard controller. I'm not going be able to do it justice in terms of everything I can do, but I would certainly recommend checking out fingerflyer.com to see videos of it in action and, you know, see the final product and final result of what a college kids ambition and Protolabs support can do.
Steve Konick: Jake, you were a college student at the time, and you're probably taking a full course load. How did you balance out making Finger Flyer successful with all of your life commitments at that time?
|At A Glance|
Initial designs for the Finger Flyer drone were problematic. Multiple design iterations led to further complications matching the redesigns with specific materials and parts that would perfectly suit the project.
Design and material challenges were overcome through working with Protolabs. After running tests on the options available to him, Parker found the right match for the materials he was looking for in the specific colors that he wanted for his product.
Jake Parker: Yeah, that's a great question, because it's something I still struggle with, and it's not so much the time, I think I think that's an easy cop out for a lot of people, including myself. I think we all we all use that if we're not doing what we if we're not where we want to be and we're not doing as much as we think we should, it's easy to kind of fall back on, “No, I don't have the time.” We all have the same amount of time of the day. Everyone has 24 hours a day that they can work on something. It's about where they're allocating that time. Right? What their priorities are. If I had to go back, I was recently in an interview with a big aerospace company and they asked me what I would go do differently if I to go back to school. Honestly, and it's probably not the answer they wanted to hear, I wouldn't try as hard to get like all As. That's something that just wasn't super fruitful. You know, there's people—I’d be getting an A in a class, someone would get a C and they know more than me. It's because I was putting too much time into the politics of grading and trying to get the, you know, spending more time than necessary for what I'm actually getting out of it.
Jake Parker: And so to answer your question directly. I think it's a matter of prioritizing and it's something that. That kind of comes down to motivation, right, when you're prioritizing, it's what you're more, more or less motivated to do, and it's super easy to get yourself motivated and all pumped up. And again, is something I still struggle with and I still deal with. You can get yourself super motivated and pumped in the moment. And then you wake up the next morning and it's reset. The hard part is maintaining that. And so, I mean, I wish there was a shorter, less rambling answer for it, but I think it's something that's individualized and you got to adjust. If I guess to summarize it, if it really matters to you, if you really care about the mission, you're going to find the time. You're going to find the way. There are a lot of people who are a lot younger and further along than I am. And it's because they really care about the mission and we have the same amount of time. So that's it's really not an excuse for me. It's just my own shortcomings in terms of motivation and maintaining that motivation.
Steve Konick: Every company has a mission, so what's Finger Flyers mission and what drives you?
Jake Parker: Yeah, my early you know, my early experiences with technology really shaped who I became as maybe a person, but certainly my career path, seeing something like a 3D printer in high school and looking and saying, wow, that is just incredible that, like, I don't know how that works. I don't know how to use it. I hope I eventually learn how to use it. And when I did eventually learn how to use it, I remember thinking, like, you know, this is crazy technology. I mean, I still do think it's great technology. But at the time, you know, not knowing how to use it once I quote, conquered that, which in reality it's very easy, they make it for people like, you know, little high school, Jake, to be able to use. And when I was able to use that, I'm like, oh, this is you know, it was like this feeling of being able to conquer something, to conquer technology and understand it. And the more I use it, the better I got at it. And that even though it's kind of a trivial like in the moment, I don't think I realized how significant something like that was where you have this really cool piece of technology and you're able to control it, to conquer it and through that, understand it. And with Finger Flyer, you know, we have the STEM kit launching now, which is for schools.
Jake Parker: Right. And we've sold a few hundred of those throughout the U.S. We have some really big orders on the way. And we've sold a few hundred of the toys. The mission has always been the same. There are two pretty different presentations of the product, but the mission has always been how can we provide something that's a hands-on exciting learning experience for someone that makes education fun—whether they know it or not, whether it's a toy or it's a lab in school, you know, it's going to teach them in this case specifically through the lens of a quadcopter drone and that kind of flight, which is something that's, you know, to me when I was younger, super cool, like, wow, look at this thing flying. And it's so crazy. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. And I thought, you know, I've always been passionate about drones and I've had these experiences. I thought, you know, well, let's use a drone to do this. And then, you know, it was when I was flinging my hand out the window saying, you know, this feels kind of cool. What if you could surf the wind? And that's kind of how this scattered, you know, all these different things came together into Finger Flyer.
Steve Konick: You've talked about your home experiments with 3D printing, and you use that in your prototyping phase, but how did you end up landing on injection molding for your end use parts?
Jake Parker: It started out as FDM printing. So that's the pretty standard—when people think of 3D printing, that's usually what they think of. It's cheap, fast. You know, it's a cheap, dirty way to do stuff or to prototype. But it was resolution-wise and quality-wise of the prints, it was not going to be sufficient for really being able to, as the prototype progressed, really being able to figure out some of the more intricate parts. And so then we moved to stereolithography. So with SLA printing with resins and you get some, you know, because you're printing with a laser, some really quality prints, a little bit more delicate in general, and it's very expensive and time consuming. So that was something that for prototyping was awesome, but it was not something that was ever, you know, considered for large scale manufacturing because, you know, we deal with hundreds and thousands of sales now where if we were using an SLA printer for that, I wouldn't be through the first hundred yet. So that's you know, I think once we had a prototype that we're really happy with, then the obvious step was, OK, this is an injection molded project. It's the same part. It's you know, there's not we need the same two parts, you know, let's make a mold for it. And we were shopping around a lot with manufacturers overseas and in the US. And we were talking to all of them at the same time, trying to figure out who's going to suit us best. And Protolabs stood out just significantly in working with us through the design.
Jake Parker: You know, a lot of these other manufacturers, you go to them and they want to just take your file, put it in whatever apparatus they have and spit something out. Protolabs: it was very obvious that they cared about what our goals and values were. Beyond just the physical, beyond the part that they would even be using, you know, I remember sending I remember having conversations, sending videos of, you know, the other parts that Protolabs had nothing to do with in terms of manufacturing just so they could better understand what I was trying to do, high level and really guided that for four months just through meetings with their professional staff, help work through like, oh, this is what a draft is. You need to add drafts. And I remember thinking, oh, a three degree draft like that's not going to make a difference. And and, you know, they give me the respect of someone who's the inventor and the founder and the head of the company and, you know, OK, well, then we'll try without it. You know, it didn't work, and so they were right, you know, we put the draft on and it worked, it was I remember moments like that where I never doubted the team. I guess I was just surprised by certain aspects of like the injection molding process where Protolabs really knew their stuff and throughout that process really helped guide the design of it. Which was yeah, it was it was a great experience.
Steve Konick: I've read stories that say that the road to building the Finger Flyer was kind of a rocky one, a lot of the molded parts needed to be tweaked to fix draft issues. Why don't you want to tell us a little bit about those issues and how you overcame them, I guess, with the help of Protolabs?
Jake Parker: Yeah, it's honestly hard to know where to begin. There were several draft issues, overhangs, thin cross sections, and on top of that, I had no idea what material to use were Protolabs really stands out compared to all these other manufacturers that I've talked to as their individualized attention and overall support given throughout the process of not just designing, but designing for manufacture. I just graduated Georgia Tech for engineering last month and I can confidently say that I learned as much working with Protolabs team as I did any other engineering course.
Steve Konick: A lot of other people face the kind of issues that you faced in building Finger Flyer: issues with overhang and issues with draft, what did you do and how did you get to the point where you were comfortable with the final product?
Jake Parker: I guess one thing that stood out during the design process was eliminating the overhangs in the design. I remember comparing the two parts price wise, what it would take to get those molds done. And what I had, even though it maybe could have been injection molded at that point, it would have cost almost twice as much as it could have with some very small modifications that wouldn't have done anything to the actual utility or use of the product. Protolabs was able to help walk me through how eliminating overhangs in unique ways and being very intentional with the design to be able to meet my own specs and be able to deliver what users needed while cutting the price in half is something that was new to me as far as, you know, talking with manufacturers who are just looking to get something done and not pay as much attention to, you know, what somebody like me really needs out of the manufacturing.
Steve Konick: And the parts, I assume have to be really carefully built to weight specifications across the parts so that you don't have one propeller that has a bump in it all of a sudden causes the entire Finger Flyer to lift up on one side and not the other. Were there any problems with that that you had along the way from prototyping all the way to production?
Jake Parker: Yeah, there was definitely I mean, another example of Protolabs and their design team going above and beyond was helping refer me to material suppliers that would help walk me through, you know, what kinds of materials could meet all these different constraints just to name a few. You know, as you referred to, the weight is something that's obviously very important to something that's going to be flying while still being durable. There's actually flexible parts because there's interlocking features. They needed to be self-threaded. And a lot of these different constraints, there's tradeoffs, right? So it's about finding that balance. Not to mention I'm on a college kid budget, which when you're in the manufacturing realm, is a whole big problem in and of itself. And they Protolabs you know, they referred me to some different material experts that were able to walk me through based on what I needed property-wise and ultimately get what we needed for that.
Steve Konick: With the issues that you had, were there ever moments where you were thinking to yourself, I don't think this is ever going to come together or I'm going to run out of money before this comes together.
Jake Parker: You know, up until the manufacturing stage personally incurring that financial burden. But then I think it was even more pressing when it was when it was an investor's money. Right. Because now I have an obligation to return on that. That was always one of the more pressing, I guess, forces along the way is making sure I'm honoring my commitment to not only get their money back, but to make sure this goes through and deliver on deliver on my financial commitment. I think that I was I was always. Protolabs instilled a lot of confidence along the way, I think there was never a point in the design that I thought this wasn't going to be possible. It was always, well, is this going to be financially feasible? My prototype that I made before Protolabs was involved was, you know, miles from being something that could be mass-manufactured and it cost me $250 per drone, which is just completely unfeasible from a from a marketing and sales point of view. Now we can sell them for $40. And I think that that really as an engineer, I have a tendency and I know I mean a lot of my other fellow engineers have the same tendency where we're very focused on the design of something and making it perfect. And we don't always doubt or maybe we focus on rather we focus on the product in terms of it's in how we're using it and what it needs to do, but not taking into account the cost as much. And I think that when we're talking about running a company and entrepreneurship, that's ultimately what's going to make or break it, because you can make something that's really cool for endless amounts of, you know—if you have an endless financial stream, you can make almost anything you want, but the financial feasibility of something is often overlooked. And I think that's really where Protolabs helped take us to the next level.
Steve Konick: Now, it's not just a toy. It's also an educational opportunity. You have a STEM kit that comes with this. Tell us about why that was important to you and how did that come to be?
Jake Parker: Yeah, the team and I are super excited and passionate about the launch of our educational drone stem kits. The Finger Flyer educational stem kits were created to offer an exciting educational solution for learning about drones inside and outside of the classroom. Each drone STEM kit provides an assembly guide, explains the flight principles, underlying physics, and the drone technology that makes it all possible.
Steve Konick: So what target audience do you have for that? What age group?
Jake Parker: So we're currently developing labs and activities that will cater to different specific grades. Right now we've we're in a couple of high schools and a couple of middle schools across the East coast. We have some big orders in the in the works. And we're really excited to roll out our next wave of educational content.
Steve Konick: Do you ever dream that someday you'll be out somewhere and a kid will come up to you and say that your STEM Kit was a huge inspiration for them?
Jake Parker: I mean, I'm somebody who designed a fun quadcopter if that helped inspire a future leader who does something way beyond what I could ever do, even if that played a small role, I would feel incredibly fulfilled and satisfied. You know, to every once in a while I'll get like, you know, maybe every week I'll get contacted by a teacher or a student or a parent or a child who has, you know, some one SKU of the Finger Flyer drone. And they'll just even even if it's simple, as you know, give it to my kid, they can't put it down. Or sometimes it's really and sometimes I get a whole paragraph about like, you know, “the classroom is so engaged.” And that drives me a lot more than I thought it would. And this is coming from a college kid who's trying to pay off his loans and is very money-oriented because I have to be. And it's cliche, you know, as I'm saying it now, but it's like that kind of, you know, just simple, you know, hey, this is really cool. You know, I'm glad I got this. It really does drive me a lot continually. You know, we talked earlier about maintaining that motivation, which is hard for, you know, it's hard for an entrepreneur because we don't sit down and have tasks that we don't like. We have to assign ourselves tasks. We're the ones who are our own bosses, which makes it can make it tough to self-motivate. But getting those along the way, certainly, you know, you've got to you've got to pick what's I guess you've got to cherish what you can get, especially before, you know, some real money was made with this that really drove me.
Jake Parker: And honestly, even with the some of these big deals coming in now, it's still the main motivator for me is seeing you know, I'll go to just last week I was I went to a school to present and give a talk there. And seeing the kids, you know, they would come up. I would expect them to ask, like, hey, how can I start a company to make money? Not one of those. Not one question like that. It was all about the drone and how it works and the technology and how I got interested in what I'm doing now. And it was all about the engineering of it. And I was kind of shocked and I should have been because that was the goal. But, you know, for me to get all those questions about these kids legitimately wondering about the technology was super gratifying for me, because that's the whole mission. That's the whole mission of Finger Flyer. You know it on the surface level, it's OK. How can I make a drone that's more intuitive and fun to control in a new, novel way? But at the core, it's I want to I want to instill that same passion and fascination with STEM and technology. And I feel like I've been able to get that in a lot of different ways throughout this venture.
Steve Konick: Jake, this was really fascinating, I think I think the Finger Flyer sounds like something that I might want to get for my kid so she could learn a little bit about aeronautics from the ground up, literally. Thanks so much for being here today.
Jake Parker: Thanks for having me.
Steve Konick: And that's this edition of The Digital Thread, I want to thank our guest, Jake Parker, from Finger Flyer for hanging out with us. And don't forget to subscribe to future digital thread podcasts on one of our host sites, Apple, Google or Spotify.