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How Obwalden-based Swiss manufacturer maxon entered the industrial drone industry

Eszter Kovács, the co-founder and CEO of DroneTalks, recently travelled to the tranquil Swiss valley of Obwalden to visit the headquarters of maxon Group, located in the heart of the Alps. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, maxon Group is a leading manufacturer known for its high-quality motors, which are often promoted and displayed at various events around the world. Beyond motors, maxon has recently ventured into the e-bike industry with its BIKEDRIVE AIR product, diversifying its product line. As a global organisation, the company has over 3,000 employees and is present in 40 locations around the world.

Roger Villiger, Head of Business Unit Aerospace at maxon, introduced us to the company. He described maxon as a motion control solutions provider, offering precision electro-drives, sensors, gears and control solutions to customers in various industries. It all started in the canton of Obwalden, and the company has since expanded to six production sites and numerous sales units around the globe.

Villiger, who is also a mountain biker, has a special appreciation for the maxon bicycle drive, a product of the Mobility Solutions business unit. Over the past seven years, maxon has shown increasing interest in the e-bike industry, particularly in the last four to five years when lighter mountain bike drives and road bikes came onto the market. The company's lightweight and efficient motors are ideally suited to this industry, which has led to maxon supplying bicycle drives to several suppliers.

When asked about maxon's involvement in the aerospace industry, Villiger explained that maxon's solutions have been used in space on several occasions. The company was involved in the first Mars mission in 1997, providing drives for NASA's Pathfinder mission. Since then, they have been involved in every Mars mission by NASA and ISAS. Most notably, maxon was involved in the development of Ingenuity, the first drone on Mars, for which it supplied small pitch-orientation drives.

Around 2015, maxon started to receive enquiries from the drone industry. Although they were unable to respond to these requests at the time, they initiated a research and development project for drone motors. This move was driven by the realisation that their lightweight motors were well suited for innovative new mobility solutions such as e-bikes and drones, which required safe, reliable, efficient and lightweight designs. 

The history of maxon Group and their rise as a motor manufacturer

Before maxon was one of the world-leading manufacturers, they were a small business that was started in 1961 in Sachseln in the canton of Obwalden, Switzerland. Max Braun founded the company with his sons Erwin and Artur Braun and German engineer Bodo Fütterer. They initially developed lightweight motors for electric shavers, an endeavour that proved so successful that BRAUN GmbH was eventually sold to Gillette. This venture into lightweight motor design paved the way for the company to develop precision motors, which eventually gained international recognition.

Following the sale of Braun GmbH to Gillette in 1967, engineers at the newly named Interelectric AG continued to innovate. They developed a range of DC motor models, thanks in part to the patented manufacturing process for the ironless rotor with diamond-shaped winding developed by the engineers in Sachseln. These advances were built on the company's initial research into DC motors and the work of its R&D department. In 1970, the DC motors were trademarked as "Maxon", marking a new era for the company.

In 1999, the company was restructured and renamed Maxon Motor AG. They continued to innovate and grow, offering DC motor drive configuration tools via their website in 2012. In 2017, they acquired zub motion control AG, based in Lucerne, Switzerland, and a year later, they expanded further with the acquisition of Parvalux Electric Motors Ltd, based in Bournemouth, UK.

Maxon continued to adapt and innovate. Not only did they develop complete mechatronics in collaboration with customers, consisting of motors, gearboxes, sensors, controllers, batteries and software, but they also offered these in standard or unique designs. In July 2019, the company simplified its brand to 'maxon', continuing its legacy of innovative and reliable solutions in the industry.

This led to the reliability of maxon's motors being recognised by the engineers of the first Mars Rover, who used 11 maxon motors for the Sojourner. Roger Villiger, Head of the Aerospace Business Unit at maxon, also revealed that since its involvement in the first NASA mission to Mars, maxon has been a consistent supplier to most Mars missions, including those yet to be launched. 

How the highest quality can be achieved at scale in manufacturing

Despite the global presence of the maxon Group as a leading manufacturer, the company's headquarters remain firmly anchored in Sachseln, Obwalden, Switzerland. This location, where maxon was founded over 60 years ago, represents the company's unwavering commitment to the Swiss principles of quality and reliability. Even as maxon continues to expand its global footprint, these core values remain at the heart of the company's ethos.

Roger Villiger, head of maxon's Aerospace business unit, explained the enduring importance of the company's Swiss headquarters. Despite the global reach of its innovation projects, including those for drone solutions, the Swiss headquarters continues to play a key role. Villiger said: "For the drone industry, our headquarters is still the leading location due to its proximity to the Swiss Drone Valley and the availability of specialists and infrastructure.”

maxon's commitment to quality is demonstrated not only by its actions but also by five internationally recognised certifications: ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 13485, EN 9100 and IATF 16949. Each of these certifications is a testament to the quality of the company's products, including those for the medical and aerospace sectors. The rigorous testing required to achieve these certifications allows maxon to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to quality, a commitment embodied in the company's guiding principle of "Quality without Compromise".

This commitment to quality results in a longer product life cycle, as explained by Roman Meier, Technical Project Manager in the Aerospace Business Unit. Meier highlighted the robust and durable design of maxon's products, which are built to withstand the harsh conditions such as rain, snow and wind that drones are often exposed to. The durability of the products, combined with the efficiency of maxon's drive systems, reduces the need for frequent recharging and enables longer drone missions with fewer charging stations in between.

Meier also emphasised that while their products may seem more expensive upfront, the quality and longevity of maxon's products make them more cost-effective in the long run when compared to alternative options. As such, maxon's commitment to quality, which is rooted in its Swiss heritage, is an integral part of the company's operations, no matter how expansive the company becomes globally.

Why do more drone companies succeed in Switzerland than anywhere else

Switzerland has a well-deserved reputation in the aviation industry for providing optimal conditions for the growth and development of drone operations. So, it's no surprise that renowned organisations such as Auterion, Jedsy, RigiTech, Flybotix and several others have established their headquarters here. Similarly, the maxon Group makes strategic use of this network by forming partnerships with drone organisations working on complex products. As a result, the technical development of drones is simplified with the help of maxon's team of experts.

These collaborations result in drones that integrate the unique strengths of each participating company. This approach increases efficiency and ensures compatibility with different software interfaces. During our interview, Roman Meier, Technical Project Manager in the Aerospace Business Unit at maxon, showed us one of maxon's test drones. This drone featured maxon-developed motors and motor control electronics, while the rest of its structure incorporated components from Auterion or standard carbon fibre materials to maintain structural integrity. 

Meier explained that these partnerships allow the strengths of each company to be identified and used to create the best overall product. This collaborative strategy counters the prevailing mindset in the drone industry, where many companies strive to be the complete end-to-end manufacturer of all parts. Given the relatively young age of the industry, this goal is currently unattainable due to a lack of practical experience to test each solution.

Meier also talked about maxon's first drone motor, the EC 87 flat, designed for professional drone applications. Capable of delivering up to ten kilograms of thrust (and six kilograms of continuous thrust), the motor is robust, environmentally friendly and efficient. The motor, which has been on the market for a number of years, has received positive feedback for its durability and resistance to harsh environments. 

When asked why maxon decided to venture into the drone industry, Meier revealed that around 2015, the company started receiving requests from customers for unique business cases. Although maxon did not initially have any ready-made solutions, these enquiries started a thought process within the company. Around 2019, as resources grew and the business unit expanded, the company explored potential future niches, and drones emerged as an area of interest. Maxon gradually expanded its focus and solutions towards drones.

Collaborating with other organisations across the ecosystem

​​maxon has also recently partnered with Flybotix, a drone company based in Lausanne, to develop custom motors for its drones. According to Marco Sicher, Business Development Engineer for the Aerospace Business Unit at maxon, this partnership has not only fostered successful drone development for Flybotix, but has also enabled maxon to gain important insights into the rapidly evolving drone industry.

Flybotix has been using maxon's custom motors since its inception, specifically for a caged drone designed for indoor inspections. The aim was to create a compact motor with extended flight times, resulting in a highly reliable product with excellent battery life. This solution is perfect for the Flybotix drone, which weighs just 1.5kg.

Despite the success of this project, applying the same motor design to other drones may not be straightforward due to the high level of customisation required. However, maxon remains open to similar collaborations, provided there is a mutual understanding and alignment of objectives between them and the potential partner.

While this approach to customisation may seem unique for an emerging industry such as drone technology, it is in fact a reflection of maxon's operating values, which cut across all sectors. They pride themselves on delivering customised applications and products, underlining that customisation is as important as quality in their organisational DNA.

maxon has used its long-standing expertise in developing top-quality motors to create new solutions tailored to the drone market. One example is the ECX 32 flat motor, a standard portfolio motor that has been adapted to meet the specific requirements of drone applications. They made changes to the shaft, the flange and even the winding to achieve a higher speed constant, an essential feature for drones.

While cheaper alternatives may seem tempting, maxon ensures that its motors will prove more cost-effective in the long run. With a traceable and sustainable supply chain, minimal variation in motor performance and durability in harsh environments. The durability and longevity of maxon motors, as well as their adaptability to different weather conditions, make them an excellent choice for drone applications in any environment. In addition to high performance, maxon's products are also lightweight, a crucial factor when considering the total payload of a drone.

Continuously iterating and improving designs as the industry matures

With a firm commitment to the growing aerospace industry, Maxon Group is constantly working to innovate drone motors and controllers to meet the growing demand for reliable and durable UAVs. This project, launched in 2019, involved the acquisition of new skills and rigorous testing to ensure the production of the most suitable components for drone applications.

Through these testing phases, the maxon team realised the importance of effective motor cooling systems and consequently incorporated this into their designs. They also discovered the impact of motor control algorithms and gyroscopic forces on UAV motors, leading to the development of specialised test equipment to address these factors.

The project also included extensive efficiency testing to improve the performance of the drone's propulsion system. By working with a wide range of market participants, maxon gained insights into different areas of the drone industry and highlighted the need for a comprehensive strategy to build reliable drones.

The company's various divisions and sectors work together to develop the ideal motor solution for each customer. Feedback on the resulting lightweight drone motors and electronic speed controllers has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in terms of their longevity.

In terms of specific products, maxon has developed a UAV ESC speed controller for professional drone applications. The controller, which can be made even lighter by removing the housing, is designed for efficiency and features a drone-cam interface for telemetry feedback. The controller is already in use and is compatible with systems such as Auterion or Pixhawk.

In addition, maxon is contributing to the drone industry by building motors and electronic speed controllers for drones manufactured by its partners. For example, it has developed drone cam algorithms and frameworks in collaboration with Auterion. The drone components manufactured by maxon include the motors and the ESC. They are integrated into drones that also use components from other partners, such as Auterion and Mejzlik, a well-known propeller manufacturer.

This collaborative approach underlines maxon's belief in the power of partnerships to create the most efficient drive systems. They are opposed to the mindset of start-ups trying to do everything themselves, rather than promoting a focus on becoming a major supplier in their area of expertise. The development of new customer projects on a daily basis demonstrates the continued evolution of innovative motors and control electronics in the drone industry.

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