Crank It Up!

Whipsaw designs a feature-packed emergency radio for Etón.

Given the ascent of podcasts, MP3s, and live streaming audio, the analog radio may seem a tad ­retrograde, a gizmo only a self-professed Luddite or die-hard camper could love. But in the face of a natural disaster, terror attack, or blackout, it can be a ­modern-day lifesaver, delivering news and information when electricity isn’t available. Etón’s Solarlink FR500, the lat­est in the company’s Red Dot Design Award–winning series of radios sanctioned by the American Red Cross, takes energy independence a step further: its internal battery can be charged using solar power or by turning the hand crank.

The FR500 is more than just a radio. With a built-in flashlight, alarm clock, emergency siren, flashing SOS beacon, and USB-enabled cell-phone charger, it’s an all-in-one survival kit. Packing all these features into a rugged, compact, and lightweight frame presented a true challenge to the designers at the San Jose, California–based firm Whipsaw. “You have all of these components that have to share space—­circuit boards, speakers, and lights—so you end up playing a game of Tetris,” says David Sam Benavidez, who managed the task with the help of the company’s president and lead designer, Dan Harden. Here Benavidez talks about fine-tuning the FR500, which is available in white and black from

Product dimensions
Height: 8.5 in.
Width: 7.75 in.
Depth: 2.5 in.

We built a quick model to determine the proper length of the handle, so you can get some good leverage on it. Like the rest of the radio, the hand crank is made of a polycarbonate and ABS blend. Originally, we wanted to make it out of metal, but costs prohibited us from going that route. Still, it has a durable dimension, and the handle is textured for a nice grip.

Surrounding the crank handle and a lot of the controls is a frame that was inspired by car engineering. When Etón first started talking to us about designing the line, they showed us lots of images of other products that reflected the path they wanted to go down, including automotive objects like the Hummer and Land Rover.

We opened up this [the top] area to form a grab handle. The bridge above houses a big glass-covered solar panel, which can power the radio even in overcast weather.

The flashlight has four ultrabright white LEDs, and you can use the handle on top to direct the beam.

The basic idea behind the product is that you don’t need to be plugged in; you can generate your own power. So we decided to put the hand crank front and center. We left a nice little recess on the radio so you can put your finger in and easily pull out the handle, which has a simple barrel-style hinge.

The LCD-style display has a green backlight that’s nice and bright. This radio can pick up many different bands—AM, FM, shortwave, and seven weather signals. An LED lights up each of the little text identifiers as you scroll through them all.

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