If you've ever operated a radio-controlled (R/C) car, boat, or airplane, you know firsthand just how fun — and frustrating — it can be. Combine these three vehicles and you have triple the pleasure, and triple the pain. Keep in mind the two camps obsessed with these R/C creations and you'll realize why they're such a challenge to design.

Kids want to play with easy to use, exciting toys. R/C aficionados, on the other hand, prefer power and precision. Designers must decide if and how to walk the line between these two crowds.

Design dilemmas

The biggest challenges involved meeting a short timeline (six months) due to the likelihood of copycats, plus developing a mass producible, factory-friendly incarnation of the hand built model. “Once we had an agreement with the inventors, our challenge was to reverse engineer the aerodynamics,” recalls James Elson, director of product development.

This involved building models in SolidWorks and hitting weight targets, as well as matching motors to the propellers and batteries, which turned out to be more difficult than expected. Structural modifications were also required, such as changing the original single-engine drive to a two-motor model for increased reliability.

Because hobby airplanes have been known to sever fingers, safety was also a concern. Designers added propeller guards, sealed the battery interface for water tightness, and built redundant electrical safety into the lithium polymer battery. Steering was another issue. Designers decided on a differential thrust design, where one motor speeds up as one slows down, similar to tank steering. “This allows for a yaw moment that translates into an easier learning curve for beginners,” explains Elson.

Once the prototype was complete, tooling started, then stopped, for more tweaks associated with materials and motors. Connally and Butler accompanied the team to China for “on-the-spot debugging of the production line,” according to Elson.

Back story

Michael Connally and Ernest Butler are two hobbyists with a passion for flight. Over lunch one day, the two discussed how they were tired of flying floatplanes off the pool. Connally joked that he could get a hydroplane (“Miss Budweiser” style boat) to fly. A few sketches and basement hours later, “Miss Fanfold” was born. She evolved into the Hydro-Foam R/C Flying Boat, and eventually became Storm Launcher, Toronto-based Spin Master's “insane all-terrain vehicle” that takes to air, water, and land without wings or wheels.

Spin Master, a toy company, uses both independent inventors and in-house design engineers to create its products. Another inventor sent the company a video of the Hydro-Foam, which was widely circulating on the Internet. Once company execs saw it, they exchanged some expletives and approached Connally and Butler immediately. The parties reached an agreement in which the inventors would help Spin Master recreate their invention in a “toy-ized” version.

Design impact

Since Storm Launcher debuted in 2006, sales have been strong. It sells for $79.99 and requires a separate $29.99 battery. The new Storm Launcher Mini costs $39.99 and comes with a permanent battery, but isn't built for water. Although Storm Launcher was the most complex project of the company's Air Hogs line, vehicles are now in the works, they say, that make the Storm feel more like a summer breeze.

For more information, visit www.spinmaster.com.