How Spin Master built a USS Enterprise drone that really flies

The process of developing a new toy—especially one with as many engineering challenges as a Star Trek drone—is a long road

Why Design Matters

Spin Master USS Enterprise toy drone

The Spin Master USS Enterprise toy drone. (Photo by Liam Mogan)

On a rainy Tuesday in February, tens of thousands of manufacturers, buyers, journalists and other global toy industry “influencers” filed into the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to inspect dolls, sample edible bubbles and collectively determine the exact robot chimp or Bluetooth-connected rubber ducky that children will clamour for next Christmas.

The New York Toy Fair is itself a childless environment. Despite enormous banners inviting attendees to “COME IN AND PLAY,” the primary activity at the four-day trade show is a kind of simulated amusement—a pantomime in which grown adults imagine play and then, through force of will, try to sell other adults on the authenticity of their vision. Sales reps and buyers mirthlessly shot one another with marshmallow guns. A man in a red racing suit demonstrated a tricycle. A German toy maker gingerly pushed a wooden trolley across a wooden landscape, detailing his plans to expand the train-set demographic down to 18-month-olds, while a group of rapt journalists took notes. The only child visible in the 415,000 square feet of whirring candy-coloured madness was a tiny blond girl in a go-kart too small for an adult demonstrator, joylessly doing figure eights around a cordoned-off section of the polished terrazzo floor.

At the Spin Master booth, Patrick Heembrock, a youthful-looking brand manager in a blazer, jeans and sneakers, flew a foam version of the Millennium Falcon over the heads of a group of impervious buyers. Heembrock was part of an army of 120 brand managers and PR reps the company had sent to the fair. Founded in 1994, Spin Master was started by Ronnen Harary and Anton Rabie, two childhood friends who were soon joined by Rabie’s university classmate Ben Varadi. From humble beginnings selling the Earth Buddy—pantyhose stuffed with sawdust and grass seed to resemble a head that would grow green “hair”—Spin Master is now one of the top five toy companies in the world, the force behind brands like Bakugan, Meccano and Paw Patrol.

Spin Master’s Air Hogs line had been an early leader in the flying toy category, but competition has become fierce in recent years. In New York, quadcopters (small helicopters with four rotors that most people just call “drones”) were everywhere—packed into boxes plastered with Spiderman or Barbie, integrated into augmented-reality systems, their cameras linked to video headsets.

The toy Heembrock wanted to show off, however, was a departure from the usual brightly-coloured Air Hogs aimed at young boys. He walked over to a display shelf, past a remote-control Batmobile, and gestured at a delicate-looking replica of the USS Enterprise resting on a stand. “There hasn’t really been a cool flying Star Trek toy, ever,” he said. On a nearby TV, the USS Enterprise Air Hog “sizzle reel” played, the ship gliding through the air, blue lights aglow.

Like each of the hundreds of thousands of toys at the fair, the Enterprise is the result of months and months of development. Bringing a single toy to market is a risky venture, a process that involves a thousand tiny decisions that turn a sketch or idea or slice of market research into a piece of moulded-plastic reality. But a big  reason these 20-something kids selling clumps of grass seed built Spin Master into the largest toy company in Canada was their ability to shepherd the right products through this process.

Talk to enough people in the toy industry and you’ll hear variations on the same lines. They are in the business of manufacturing fun. They don’t design toys, they design smiles. They will tell you this with a grin, as if manufacturing fun is some whimsical diversion and not a complex gamble in a $20-billion-dollar industry entirely reliant on the fickle desires of elementary school children. The fair featured more than enough cautionary tales of what happens when a brand gets stale: Next to the Spin Master booth, the once-mighty Cabbage Patch Kids had been reduced to a fraction of their former glory; at the other end of the convention centre, a man sat alone, surrounded by boxes of Spirographs.

When T.W. Wong considers a new toy, the first thing he thinks about is novelty. “We want to get something no other company has done,” he says over the phone.

The 56-year-old Wong is in charge of product development at Spin Master’s workshop in Dongguan, China. In the fall of 2014, one of Wong’s engineers, a 34-year-old named James Huang, brought him the skeleton of a new flying toy.

Most quadcopters have a similar structure. While they may feature a comic book hero emblazoned on the side or a Nintendo character riding on top, they are essentially symmetrical vehicles: perfect squares with motors on the corners that stick up vertically, like stubby candles. By mounting the motors horizontally, but using an ingenious connection to keep the propellers pointed skyward, Huang made a small change that created a new form—a flying machine with a thinner profile that could glide sleekly across the room.

Wong was intrigued, but neither of the men immediately recognized what Huang had made. One of Spin Master’s strengths is the ability to identify the seed of a hit toy. Often this process begins with a concept—an idea that feels “magical” or simply fills a market niche—which engineers then figure out how to turn into reality. In 2003, an inventor’s representative brought Spin Master a sketch on a paper napkin. It depicted a sphere that unfolded into an action figure, the “marble of the future.” From that drawing, Spin Master created Bakugan, a series of collectible toys with their own backstory and television show that became the most successful product in the company’s history.

Sometimes, however, a toy begins with a bare-bones engineering innovation and it is the designer’s job to see the finished product embedded within it. In 2011, a pair of inventors came to Spin Master with a truck that had a series of engines and complex moving pieces. The company loved the design but told the creators that what they had wasn’t a truck: It was the framework of a robotic dog. Zoomer, an interactive canine on wheels, was released two years later, winning Toy of the Year awards and spawning multiple spinoffs.

Huang initially turned his drone into a mushroom, but the team quickly realized that a levitating fungus might not hold much appeal. They considered a flying saucer, but there were already a number of UFOs on the market. “In a discussion, we thought about doing different flying items,” Wong remembers. “Suddenly the Enterprise came to my mind.”

In televised outer space, the USS Enterprise is an elegant structure with an iconic design. In the earth’s atmosphere, however, it has serious drawbacks. The Enterprise’s distinctive shape, with its propulsion units jutting off the main saucer, throws off a drone’s balance. Huang tinkered with the motors and changed the way power was distributed. He moved the battery to the very front, to shift the ship’s centre of gravity, and found he was able to keep it relatively stable in the air. In January 2015, Huang made a prototype, took a video of the ship flying and sent it to Conor Forkan, Spin Master’s vice-president of marketing and product development.

When Forkan opened the video, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I think I spat my milk out when I was eating my cereal,” he says. “It doesn’t look like it should fly.” Forkan had long been considering a Star Trek toy. There were popular YouTube videos of hobbyists who had made their own ships, but there hadn’t yet been a mass-produced flying Enterprise. “I went to our licensing team right away,” says Forkan. “I said, ‘Is the Star Trek licence still available? Check out this video—we have to get it.’”

With the show’s 50th anniversary this year and a new movie scheduled for this summer, July 1 was the perfect launch date. It also meant Spin Master would have to work quickly to turn Huang’s mushroom with a tail into a shelf-ready product.

Spin Master’s Robert O’Brien, left, and Ian Patterson flying a USS Enterprise drone

Spin Master’s Robert O’Brien, left, and Ian Patterson take the Enterprise for a spin at the company’s Toronto headquarters (Photo by Philip Cheung)

Robert O’Brien had the same reaction as Forkan when he first saw the Enterprise proto­type. “Where did this come from?” the 39-year-old industrial designer remembers thinking. “And how did we not hear about it?”

As the design director for Air Hogs, O’Brien has applied his fine arts background to creating toy planes and bouncy castles. He works alongside product development manager Ian Patterson, a 31-year-old electrical engineer with a brush cut. A longtime hobbyist who spends his weekends flying drones side by side with his son, Patterson is a nerd for anything with propellers or wings.

Patterson and O’Brien work out of Spin Master’s Air Hogs studio in downtown Toronto, a ramshackle space filled with foam models of various planes and discarded propellers. An entire wall is covered in mounted remote controls that span the history of the Air Hogs brand—a half-hearted art installation that has become an archive for company designers looking for inspiration from the past. When I visited one day in late February, an aerospace engineer with chin-length curls and a Luke Skywalker T-shirt was using the 3D printer to test various propeller shapes for what he would only call “a giant drone.”

In January 2015, Patterson and O’Brien were put in charge of the Enterprise project. Their first step was to figure out exactly which of the many Enterprises that have appeared in TV and film they were building. The ship they decided was most applicable to their design, and to the goals of the marketing team, was the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A (which replace a the original USS Enterprise, destroyed in Star Trek III).

Working with the prototype, they realized they had a serious problem: The Enterprise could only fly for two to three minutes before it needed to be recharged. The pair began fine-tuning the craft, shaving the uprights, taking off a millimetre here and there. “Even a gram on these things makes a difference on flight time,” says O’Brien.

When designing a toy like the Enterprise, there is a constant push and pull between functionality and visual appeal. “The details are everything,” O’Brien says. “If you’re leaving something out, on a licensed item it’s going to get caught.” He pored over images of the Enterprise, making sure each individual window was in the right place, redesigning the prototype’s bridge and adding a series of LED lights to the “warp nacelles” that re­create the flash of the ship moving through space. For weeks, O’Brien puzzled over how to include the model number that stretches across every Starfleet vehicle. Filling in that part of the saucer and printing the number on a sticker blocked airflow, but O’Brien was adamant. After multiple revisions, they figured out how to delicately cut around the numbers, a compromise between engineering and authenticity.

Patterson, meanwhile, continued to test-fly each prototype, making sure the vehicle was easy to handle. Spin Master is interested in the mass market, not just the skilled hobbyists who race drones in YouTube videos. “With quadcopters in general, you can program them to be extremely aggressive and really fast or you can program them to be fairly modest but easy to control,” Patterson says. “That’s more where our consumer is. They’re not necessarily some RC guru who can control this wild creature.”

For most of 2015, O’Brien and Patterson went back and forth with the shop in China, sending revisions to workers in Dongguan, who 3D-printed new parts, assembled the prototypes and shipped them back to Toronto. “We probably went through about 10 revisions on this,” says Patterson.

In early 2016, after countless tweaks, the team in China cut the steel moulds that will be used to mass-produce the ship. In February, just weeks before the Toy Fair in New York, O’Brien and Patterson received the first version of the Enterprise that wasn’t cobbled together out of one-off parts.

The final version of the USS Enterprise Air Hog has a latticework of thin plastic enveloping four rotors, which are hidden within the saucer thanks to Huang’s sleeker design. A solid-looking body of EPP foam, the same material used in car bumpers, extends behind the saucer. Over the next few months, O’Brien and Patterson will continue fine-tuning the toy, finalizing the decorative elements, lab-testing the ship and seeing how it stands up to being crashed into walls (a common mishap). In April, Spin Master begins production, and by July, as Star Trek fans once again boldly go where countless franchise extensions have gone before, the toy will be on store shelves.

In the Air Hogs studio one day in late February, O’Brien put the Enterprise on the edge of a coffee table and looked at it with affection. Before becoming an industrial designer, he was an artist. The Enterprise isn’t a work of art, of course. It is, in the end, just another plastic toy—one of hundreds of thousands of creations that toy makers had taken to New York. For O’Brien, however, there was satisfaction in seeing a carefully wrought design brought to fruition. “Doing art is awesome, but you do one piece and it’s done,” he says. “This is like art, but it’s mass-produced. You’re trying to make it the best you can, you’re very proud of it and then you get out there and can see everyone else enjoy it.”

Patterson picked up the remote. With a touch, the ship leaped off the table and then steadily hovered around the room, rotors whirring. “With any toy, what we look for is a wow moment,” O’Brien says. “How do you surprise people? With this one, you look at it and think, You can’t make an Enterprise fly. And then we make it fly.”