Richard Aboulafia: March 2015 letter

Dear Fellow New Technology Obsessives,

Greil Marcus, a music critic, wrote a great Village Voice essay, “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes.” It examined each 1970s rock musician and their death, scoring them 1-10 on the basis of three categories: Quality of Music, Influence of Musician, and Quality of Death. Jimi Hendrix was the only musician to get a perfect score of 10 in each category.

Reading this essay inspired me to take a new approach to one of my favorite things to write about. This month, for the fourth time, I served as a judge on the annual Collier Trophy Committee. Given the extremely diverse range of the seven candidates this year, I decided to take Marcus’s methodological approach, and I scored each candidate according to relevant criteria on a 1-10 scale, and then totaled up the numbers. Here are the criteria I used:

  1. Impact on broader systems. Does it open new doors with heretofore unavailable capabilities or technologies?
  2. Cash. That’s my day job as a market analyst…what’s the market impact of the candidate? How much economic activity does it generate?
  3. Leveragability. Is this a standalone product or system, or can it be scaled up or down, or applied to different systems, thereby creating more value?
  4. ATOS (all that other stuff). Any other factors that distinguish (or diminish) the candidate.

First, there was Aurora’s Orion UAS, which last year set a record for unmanned flight endurance (80 hours). Scores: (1) Eight. Persistent low-cost surveillance (and one day targeting) coupled with a high degree of autonomy, has big military implications. (2) Three. I’ve just never been a big believer in the size of the UAS market, no matter how useful the individual systems are. (3) Seven. The airframe and onboard systems can be used in many ways, for many applications. (4) Nine. This was something really innovative and new, which is the spirit of the Collier Trophy. Total Score: 27. A great first candidate.

Second was the F-16 Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance Team. This system automatically engages when an F-16 pilot inadvertently sets a collision course with terra firma. Scores: (1) Four. It doesn’t intend to open new doors. It’s intended to save lives (which it has). (2) Four. Not an expensive system, but since it will be applied to the F-35 that’s a lot of units. (3) Five. Again, there’s applicability to the F-35, and some other platforms. (4) Three. This capability has been around for years, meeting cultural resistance. It’s not a new breakthrough. Total Score: 16.

Next was the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, a team effort aimed at reducing GA fatalities. This was hard to judge, since it’s not a specific system or technology; it’s just a team of people doing good work. Scores: (1) Five. Saving lives is good work. (2) Three. This isn’t about money, although better safety might boost the market slightly. (3) Three. More good work ahead, I hope, but this seemed more incremental and less likely to produce breakthroughs. (4) Two. It’s hard to recall anything in particular about the presentation. Total Score: 13.

Fourth was NASA/Lockheed Martin’s Orion Exploration Flight Test-1, an unmanned mission launched by a Delta IV rocket. The capsule served as a successful test bed for what may one day be a crewed spacecraft (but this industry really needs to retire the name “Orion” – Wikipedia lists about a dozen space systems named Orion). Scores: (1) Eight. It looks like the Apollo, but with totally modernized features and technologies. That sounds like the next big step towards space exploration. (2) Four. As my colleague Marco Caceres, Teal’s space analyst, points out, there’s really not enough cash in the NASA budget to do something meaningful with manned space exploration. There’s also a lack of clarity about what the next manned mission will be. (3) Six. Lots of potential for growth. Or, as one fellow judge put it, “Come back when they put a man in it.” (4) Eight. I like systems that leverage existing designs. Also, fun phrases: “Just like back in the Apollo days.” And, “There’s your new spacecraft, America.” Extra credit for using Sesame Street’s Elmo for public outreach. My kids love Elmo. Total Score: 26.

Fifth was Alan Eustace and the StratEx Team. Eustace, a Google executive, jumped out of a balloon at 105,678 feet, using a remarkable combination of technologies to avoid what would seemingly lead to certain death. Scores: (1) Four. There was talk of a space launch survival suit, but launch accidents tend to be sudden and catastrophic. Nobody gets stuck part of the way to space. (2) Two. Other than tech executives, who’s gonna pay for this? (3) Three. I’m not sure what you do with this equipment or experience. (4) Six. These folks were explorers, setting records at personal risk and advancing what we know about the stratosphere. And the whole thing reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Total Score: 15.

Embraer’s Legacy 500 was next. While Bombardier was killing the Lear 85 and whining about the market, Embraer was attacking the very same segment, rejuvenating it with impressive new technologies. Scores: (1) Two. There have been business jets in this class since the ‘60s. (2) Seven. Solid market prospects ($14.5 billion in Teal’s ten year forecast, including the 450). (3) Four. The 500 has a smaller brother (the 450) but there are no plans to further expand the family or leverage its technologies. (4) Five. Neutral. It was a business jet presentation. Total Score: 18.

Finally, there was Gulfstream’s G650. The biggest and most capable dedicated business jet built so far, the G650 is the best way to conduct global business, flaunt your immense wealth, or fly into exile after being deposed in a coup d’etat. Scores: (1) Three. It’s got great range and flies fast, and it has some nifty features, but I’m not sure it does anything truly new. Or, as a Dassault salesman once said about being the only high end business jet manufacturer without a 6,000+ nmi design, “We don’t see what’s wrong with having to stop in Hawaii.” (2) Ten. Biggest cash generator Collier entrant this year ($33 billion in Teal’s ten year forecast). (3) Eight. The 650 has many new features and technologies which are going into the company’s G500/600 series, launched last year and with even greater commercial prospects. (4) Five. The presentation had a certain “It’s a huge business jet and it makes tons of money. Vote for us.” Quality to it. Total Score: 26.

So, how’d my new Collier methodology do? Nailed it!…almost. As you can see, Orion UAS came in first (27 points), followed by theG650 and Orion spacecraft (26 each). Sure enough, the committee needed to do a run-off vote with exactly those three entrants as finalists! This was followed by another run-off, between Orion UAS and the G650. But then the G650 won the run-off (and, of course, the 2014 Collier Trophy). At least I got the finalists right. I guess attaching numbers to opinions doesn’t make the process rocket science, but it does elevate it slightly above mere words. And, the outcome still works for me: the G650 is a seriously neat jet.

These brief and superficial assessments don’t really do justice to a group of fine people and institutions that do great work. All the entrants merit attention and accolades. But this is a two-pager. In longer form, this month’s updated Teal reports include the F-35, F-15, A320, A330, A380, 767/KC-46, A400M, Bell’s 407/429/505, Airbus’s Dauphin/H160 family, and the Learjets. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til We Get A Hendrix-Like Perfect 40 Collier Winner,

Richard Aboulafia