A measured approach
Aeroprobe Corp. instruments keep drones flying and racecars on the ground
From its small facility in Blacksburg, Aeroprobe Corp. has carved a niche for itself in the field of precision measurement. Its instrumentation and software products are so accurate that they’re in demand by racecar pit crews and the nation’s military. “The military can’t use a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone] if the weather conditions are not right. Real-time data allows you to optimize performance,” says Nanci Hardwick, Aeroprobe’s CEO.
Aeroprobe’s products collect information on atmospheric conditions around the drone, measuring things such as air speed, the angle of air and air temperature. Without the accuracy of such data, drones could stall and crash, says Hardwick.
Besides the military, Aeroprobe sells to the aerospace, wind turbine, turbo-machinery, automotive and motor sports industries. Clients include GE, Ferrari, Northrop Grumman, NASA, Boeing and Toyota. The company recently received a contract from NASA to develop a hurricane probe. “Our customers are global,” Hardwick says.
Hardwick is the founder of Schultz-Creehan Holding, a materials consulting firm that merged with Aeroprobe in 2011. “We got involved as a vendor with Aeroprobe,” she says. Aeroprobe saw its sales rise 76 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year. “This is an exciting time for our company. We have a pretty aggressive growth plan for this year, too,” says Hardwick.
The company is building a 20,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility that could be expanded in the future to 40,000 square feet in Christiansburg’s Falling Branch Corporate Park. The expansion will create 40 jobs — more than doubling the company’s current staff of 30 employees. “We have three wind tunnels, and it wasn’t possible to house them here,” Hardwick says of the two Blacksburg facilities Aeroprobe occupies. “Now we can consolidate and put them all under one roof.”
Montgomery County is a good location for the company, she adds. “We are surrounded by universities, and we have an incredible talent pool.” She also likes the area’s low cost of living, which, she says, “equates to a low cost of business. It’s a very supportive environment for business.”
One of the company’s biggest success stories is the Formula One, lightweight racecar market. “If the driver is heading around a curve at just the right speed, and there happens to be wind hitting him at the right speed and angle, the car can go airborne,” Hardwick says. “They use our products during the race to find out what environment the car is entering into and that information is transmitted to the pit crew so they can be more precise with the car’s speed.”
The company’s instruments range in size from as small as a pen to 9-foot-long turbine blades for wind turbines. Sales are divided equally between domestic and international markets. “Japan is a strong customer base, and the United Kingdom is a big market,” Hardwick says. “France, Brazil and Mexico are growing markets.”
The company uses distributors for international sales as opposed to international offices. Aeroprobe is participating in a state program ― Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) ― sponsored by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Hardwick says it has been helpful as the company tries to grow international sales. “I had a really large order come in from Korea, and I wanted to do due diligencem and they helped with the research. Their research has yielded new distributors for us.”
Hardwick likes the fact that English is typically the international standard for business around the world. One of the exceptions, she says, is China. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to get contracts in English alone rather than in both languages. The onus is on me to verify that what is written in Chinese is actually the same thing as the English version. If someone is to interpret it differently, which is the binding language?”
Hardwick enjoys working with a global group of distributors, most of whom like to touch base with her on a regular basis. “They like a lot of communication. They like progress reports.” The company’s distributor in the Czech Republic is an avid fan of Skype video calls. “Where it’s really helpful is when someone is speaking in a second language,” she says. “It makes it easier to understand the spoken word. You can see their body language and facial expressions as well.”
The Czech Republic is a good market for Aeroprobe. The company works with the automotive industry in Prague. Matthew Zeiger, Aeroprobe’s vice president of business development, has learned that business is relationship-based in Prague. “We don’t have a problem doing business there,” he says. “All of the technical talk is done in English.”
Hardwick wants to continue increasing the company’s international presence. “It’s a great way to grow the company without having to grow my own staff,” she says.
THE ECONOMY IN PRAGUE
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, serves as an economic center for the country. Industries include pharmaceuticals, computer technology, manufacturing and financial services. Thanks to its picturesque architecture and landscapes, the city has served as a film location for a variety of movies. Prague also is a center of research with 10 public research institutes. Siemens and Honeywell have research and development offices in the city. Other large companies include Virginia-based Accenture, which offers management consulting; networking giant Cisco; and Procter & Gamble.
Matthew Zeiger, Aeroprobe’s vice president of business development, likes to stay in Old Town. It’s known for its Gothic architecture and medieval clock on Old Town City Hall as well as the Charles Bridge, which is made of stone. Other popular attractions include the Baroque-style Saint Nicholas Church and Prague Castle with palaces and buildings in a variety of architectural styles from the 10th to 14th centuries. Visitors enjoy watching the changing of the guard. Zeiger says a visit to the city isn’t complete without a beer tour. Prague is a world-class beer city.
THE ECONOMY IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY
The Milken Institute’s annual index of the best performing cities ranked the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford metro area the No. 32 Best-Performing Small City of 2012. The index gauges how well metro areas are creating and sustaining jobs and economic growth. Targeted industries include information technology, biosciences, advanced manufacturing and defense technologies. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, home to more than 140 companies, helps the county attract high-tech companies. The area’s largest employers include: Dish Network, a direct broadcast satellite TV service; Carilion New River Valley Medical Center; Federal Mogul Corp., an automotive product supplier; and BAE Systems Ordnance Systems, operator of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant.
VISITING CHRISTIANSBURG AND MONTGOMERY COUNTY
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Christiansburg is the fourth-largest town in the state and the county seat of Montgomery County. Many of the county’s historic artifacts can be found in the Montgomery Museum and Lewis Miller Regional Art Center, housed in the circa-1852 Manse for the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church. The area, located in a large portion of Jefferson National Forest, is known for its outdoor activities such Class V whitewater kayaking and water sports on the New River.