Story type: Feature Article
Vehicle: Syndicated newspaper
Strategy: The drone is interesting, but the man behind the drone is much more so.
By Phil Favorite
Ben Berry will tell you it’s a lucky man whose interests, training, experience and vision all converge to create the opportunity of a lifetime.
For Berry, that time is now.
After a long career in information technology and communications systems, Berry is on the verge of impacting the world in a way he may have never thought possible as a younger man.
The company he founded in 2011, Lake Oswego-based AirShip Technologies Group, is set to begin production on a solar-powered, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — a drone called the V2. It has hundreds of pre-orders from customers around the world who plan to use it for commercial, humanitarian, civil and defense purposes.
Two things set this new product by AirShip apart from its competitors: its use of clean (solar) energy, and its extended flight endurance. Just 3-by-3-feet in size and shaped like a stingray, the drone runs on solar power during daytime flight and also is outfitted with hydrogen fuel cells for nighttime flight.
The V2 is programmable for flying and hovering and can stay aloft for as long as five days, compared to other drones on the market that have a flight endurance of just a few hours at best. With camera systems on board, the V2 can monitor and provide real-time information on specific areas of interest.
“Examples are monitoring herds of cattle for symptoms of illness, so livestock can be isolated and treated to prevent further spreading and loss,” Berry said. “Or monitoring our country’s borders to detect and prevent illegal incursion. It also can be used by first responders to execute dangerous or difficult tasks safely and efficiently.”
As co-founder and CEO, Berry sees his leadership of AirShip as a natural extension of a career focused on information systems and technology.
“In general, I’ve had a mixed background — defense, aviation, health care, state and local governments,” said Berry, a Lake Oswego resident who retired earlier this year from his job as chief technology officer for the City of Portland.
Before that, he worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation, Providence Health & Services and Hughes Aircraft. He also spent six years in Saudi Arabia working in hospital systems, logistics applications for the Royal Saudi Air Force and managing computer systems for the country’s international airports.
“The common thread in my career has always been information,” he said. “And if you look at the drone business, or the unmanned aerial business as we call it, it’s all based on a platform that provides information.”
In realms such as search-and-rescue and defense, the V2 drone literally could prove to be a lifesaver. But for Berry, it’s more than that — it’s the culmination of his life’s work, a life lived in the long shadow cast by his famous father.
Before his death in September 2013, Benny Lee “Flaps” Berry was a hot commodity on the national speaking circuit, telling stories about his days as an Army veteran and real-life Tuskegee Airman. As a member of America’s first group of fighter pilots made up entirely of African Americans, he was a trailblazer.
As a young man, Flaps liked to dabble in technical drawings, sketching out his ideas for aircraft and monorail systems that he pictured as a wave of the future.
After being discharged from the service, he settled with his wife in Kansas, but later moved to Los Angeles where his young son Benjamin could be treated and cured for polio. An acquaintance familiar with Flaps and his drawings suggested he show them to a local entrepreneur who was making a name for himself in the airplane industry at the time — Howard Hughes.
Ben Berry tells it like this:
“So dad got in the car and went to see Howard Hughes, and he was stopped at the gate. They said, ‘You can’t see Howard Hughes.’ Dad said, ‘Well, I have the drawings.’ So they let Dad in to see Howard Hughes. And he was showing Howard Hughes the drawings and Howard said, ‘Hey, these are pretty good. Are you some kind of engineer?”
When he learned that Flaps had no formal training or college-level education, Hughes suggested he show his drawings to the dean of the school of engineering at the University of Southern California. Immediately impressed, the dean admitted Flaps into the school, where “he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, the first African American to do so at USC. And that allowed him to go to work in the aerospace industry in Los Angeles,” Ben Berry said.
Benny “Flaps” Berry went on to a distinguished career in aerospace, working on the technical staffs for the Apollo, Space Shuttle and Space Station programs. He also authored the book “Tuskegee Airmen: To the Moon, Mars and Beyond!”
As it turned out, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“I always knew my career would be in science and technology, but I didn’t know exactly what kind,” Ben Berry said. “But I would always be drawing, much like my father was drawing. So full circle, going to work for Hughes Aircraft myself and then working on the design for AirShip, we ended up working on the project together before he died. And he was able to show me how to dial in the center of gravity, the aerodynamics of the aircraft, and eventually we got the aircraft to fly. That is a big part of the legacy of Airship.”
Blazing his own trail
The Berry family moved from Los Angeles to Portland in the early 1970s, just before the start of Ben’s junior year in high school. He already had been taking night and summer classes, and administrators at Grant High School told him he had nearly enough credits to graduate in three years, something young Ben made a reality.
He later earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Portland and a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA while working at Hughes Aircraft in California. So began a pattern that saw Berry leave (sometimes to live and work overseas) and return to Oregon multiple times over the next few decades.
With his wife Deidra, he raised four children who went through Lake Oswego schools; all have earned or are working on college degrees. All the while, Berry has served as a role model, not just for his children but also for students and especially African Americans who are underrepresented in the aviation and technology spheres.
“I think our youth can be intimidated by technology beyond just the consumer aspect, especially when there are not enough mentors who look like us and sound like us,” Berry said in an interview with The Breakfast Group, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and addressing the challenges of at-risk youth of color, focusing on African American males. “I like to get them exposed to technology, so if they’re inspired they can kind of push through the hard classes in high school or college to get to where they need to be.”
His impact has not gone unnoticed.
“Ben has been an outstanding mentor to some of our students and the robotics teams I’ve coached during the last several years,” said Gary Mitchell, professor of operations and technical management at the University of Portland. “Despite his incredibly busy schedule, Ben will always make time when I call or email him, asking for just a little of his time.
“Several years ago, during his very early efforts to start AirShip, I took a group of middle school boys I was coaching to Ben’s home to share their robotics competition project. Ben captivated the boys by showing them his early UAV prototype and discussing drones, aeronautical engineering and building prototypes. His enthusiasm was contagious and the boys couldn’t stop talking about the experience for weeks.”
Leaving a legacy
With the V2 ready to go into production, Berry will spend a good part of early 2016 traveling the world, speaking on behalf of AirShip Technologies and the benefits of its newest machine. Now 63, Berry sees AirShip as the culmination of all the knowledge and hard work from 30-plus years in the information technologies sector. And he’s primed and ready to bring the V2 to market.
“I’m at the top of my game,” he said. “I’m literally using all the faculties, the work I’ve done in the past. People say, ‘Well, you’re working around the clock, Ben.’ But when you’re working on something you’re passionate about, it’s not like work. I’m not watching the clock.
“I think we all would love to have something like that to work toward, but many times we fall short of that because we really haven’t connected the dots. I didn’t connect the dots for a long time. You can always connect the dots looking backward, but it’s very difficult to connect the dots moving forward.”
His father’s death in 2013 left Berry with a sense that his time has come.
“Once your parents pass, you’re it. You’re no longer the understudy,” he said. “I have four kids and a wife, and they’re looking at me now for what my legacy is and how that influences them.
“You reach a realization that the clock is ticking and nobody has a permanent place here. What are you going to do with the time remaining? That’s part of what this dream is all about. That’s where I get my passion.”
Impact: This story quickly went viral. After publishing in the Lake Oswego Review newspaper and online, it was almost instantly picked up by Oregon Public Broadcasting’s website and repeatedly shared by professional science and industry sites around the globe.
Post-script: “I have been working in media relations for over 40 years and I can’t remember when a journalist did such a thorough job of reporting. By that I mean Phil dug very deep into the subject matter and revealed a hidden gem that was a key to the entire business story, which everyone else, including myself had overlooked. This is great writing and reporting!” — Bob Ryan, Ryan Strategies International