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Exploring Unknowns

Industrial design alumnus introduces students to historic Mars aircraft and illuminates paths to new worlds of possibility.

Stan Nowak presents historic Mars Helicopter.

During his visit to Syracuse University, Stan Nowak ’99 fondly recalled the last time he was in the stadium for a Rolling Stones concert. This time, he was there to present a prototype of the Mars Helicopter.

For students in attendance at a presentation by Stan Nowak ’99, brand director at AeroVironment, Inc., the Syracuse University stadium became the surface of Mars. Nowak, who graduated with a degree in industrial and interaction design from Syracuse's College of Visual and Performing Arts, comes to campus often to help students envision new worlds of potential for their careers, and how Syracuse can prepare them.

“The importance of building a solid foundation, a basis of actual practical, theoretical training, is emphasized at Syracuse. It has helped me in my career and in my role at AeroVironment,” Nowak says. He adds that a solid understanding of cross-functional elements makes one a much better designer, and the curriculum at Syracuse helps bring that to light.

The importance of building a solid foundation, a basis of actual practical, theoretical training, is emphasized at Syracuse. It has helped me in my career and in my role at AeroVironment.

—Stan Nowak ’99

AeroVironment is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of defense tools, notably unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and systems. The company’s tactical UAV systems are proliferating throughout the U.S. Department of Defense, and they’re also known for the application of aerodynamics to industries beyond the military, including agriculture and emergency response.

Design and engineering students gathered for a demonstration by AeroVironment, Inc.

Design and engineering students gathered for a demonstration by AeroVironment, Inc., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of defense tools, most notably unmanned aerial vehicles and systems.

At a recent visit to Syracuse, Nowak and a team of AeroVironment engineers demonstrated a working prototype of the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity. They designed it in conjunction with NASA to go into space, carried on the Mars Rover, Perseverance—the centerpiece of NASA's $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission. The rover and Ingenuity successfully arrived on Mars in February 2021, and Ingenuity became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. It marked a giant leap for robotic technology and demonstrated the viability of UAVs for planetary exploration.

Nowak graduated with a close-knit group of industrial design students at Syracuse, and he has continued to maintain close ties with the University. Several years ago, he connected with faculty in VPA's School of Design and scheduled visits to meet with students—and to find top-notch interns for opportunities at AeroVironment. "We're actively leaning into design thinking by incorporating concepts of design into every aspect of business. We view design as a function that inherently works alongside cross-functional teams, such as engineering." He knows firsthand how well Syracuse prepares students for that.

In my role at AeroVironment, I offer perspective on where our products can go, how they can be used, how we can talk to end users, and how we can engage user-centric design. All of these things I learned in the industrial design program at Syracuse.

—Stan Nowak ’99

During their presentation, the AeroVironment team explained some of the design challenges for flight conditions on Mars—conditions never flown in before. For starters, Mars is about 33.9 million miles or 21 light minutes from Earth, cold Martian nights typically fall to -148 degrees Fahrenheit and the atmosphere is very thin. To get to Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter is carried in storage under the Mars rover and is launched from a rocket. It must be capable of withstanding an excessive shock load—it must be strong, rigid and also lightweight. At just 4 pounds on Earth and 1.5 pounds on Mars, Ingenuity had a tall order to deliver. And it did. “Ingenuity is a stepping-stone into other new worlds,” Nowak told the audience. Next stop? Saturn's moon Titan.

Exploratory Missions

A spirit of exploration is part and parcel of Nowak’s professional life and career journey. Nowak started his career in California working in the industrial design field. But, he was also drawn to the film industry and began to recognize himself as a storyteller. As he explains, this wasn’t a long stretch from his studies at Syracuse. “What I learned in the industrial design program about crafting a story—about marketing, developing a product and promoting a product—informed my work in certain types of storytelling for the film industry too,” he explains.

Students witness aircraft in action.

Students got to witness a prototype of Ingenuity make a short hop over the surface of the stadium.

Nowak entered the film industry by a seemingly unlikely path, working in costume and makeup. He developed his creative side and engaged with a complex culture and organizational structure before a writers’ strike in the early 2000s launched him on a new trajectory. After Hollywood, Nowak began a new role at the Simi Valley facility of AeroVironment, starting as an engineer involved in developing unmanned aircraft systems. He quickly excelled and was well poised to help launch the company’s marketing department in 2005. “There was an explosion of growth within the company at that time,” he says. “And I was prepared to be agile in a cross-functional environment.” Fast forward, Nowak now leads the creative marketing team—a talented team of motion graphics artists, production staff, and graphic designers—that collaborates to tell the AeroVironment story.

“In my role at AeroVironment, I offer perspective on where our products can go, how they can be used, how we can talk to end users, and how we can engage user-centric design,” he says. “All of these things I learned in the industrial design program at Syracuse.”

We alumni care about the University and about students, and we want them to succeed as we have. The students coming out of Syracuse are going to be game changers. They're going to bring amazing, new things into this world.

—Stan Nowak ’99

Nowak takes every opportunity to encourage students to capitalize on the vast Syracuse University network. “We alumni care about the University and about students, and we want them to succeed as we have,” Nowak says, adding that he sees his involvement with students paving the way to the future. “The students coming out of Syracuse are going to be game changers,” he says. “They're going to bring amazing, new things into this world.”

Betsey A. Brairton

This story was published on .

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