Product, Service & Design Innovation
Drones:
Sustainability's New Wingmen?

Drones have already disintermediated the aerospace/defense industry and have crossed the threshold from commercial to consumer, delivering to the average person the world’s most powerful personal computer. The potential for good in industrial agriculture, wildlife conservation and animal poaching, monitoring of factory farms, and prevention and early detection of forest fires is unprecedented.

Drones can make granular crop maps for farmers, monitor illegal logging, track sometimes elusive endangered species in their habitats, and even drill down to track the sounds of animals as small as bats.

Two years ago, after 10 years as editor in chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson left to run a startup venture, DIY Drones, with a teenager in Tijuana named Jordi Muñoz. They built flying contraptions and generated $5 million, so Anderson left the magazine world for the skies and launched 3D Robotics.

At Business Insider’s recent IGNITION Conference 2014, Anderson demoed 3D Robotics' IRIS+ drone, which retails for $750. It was a magical moment as the Darth Vader-like device rose slowly and circled the hushed, tech-savvy crowd, creating a photo mosaic with its GoPro camera.

Later, I had a chance to talk with Anderson about what he sees as the future for this potentially game-changing technology.

What is your ‘blue sky’ vision for drones?

Anderson: Whenever people ask about me about drones and the future, I remind them that William Gibson, the guy who coined the term cyberspace, famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Drones are not the future. Drones are now. They’re on farms, family vacations and film sets. They’re on every continent, flying over earthquakes and quarries and into volcanoes, watching over elephants and orangutans, ice flows and forest fires. The future is here, and now Amazon’s handling the distribution!

We’re seeing the convergence of the consumer and commercial market. Right now of course it’s mainly a consumer market, drones as basically flying cameras, flying GoPros. Commercial regulations are on the horizon and are still a little hazy. But 3DR is committed to helping people see and share their world from above.

Will drones drill down to usage by the average person and if so, how will that affect the social zeitgeist?

Anderson: Right now the average person is quite capable of flying a 3DR drone — we have tablet-based mission planning where everything about the flight is automated. You just draw the flight path on your tablet. The autopilot and the copter control everything else, and can even control the camera with features like Region of Interest photography, or Follow Me.

We definitely want to democratize this technology. We don’t envision a sky of the future swarming with drones. True success will be a world in which drones are in fact everywhere, but we don’t see them. When we look around us today, we don’t pay special attention to smartphones or laptops or cars any more. We all use these technologies in our daily lives and are better for them. It’s the fate of great innovation: The best technology is condemned to invisibility. And drones have the potential to change for the better the way that we all live, work and play.

What are the most significant effect drones can have in the sustainability sector?

Anderson: The most developed use case is in agriculture. Until maybe two years ago, I’d never set foot on a farm. But agriculture is the largest industry in the world, and the math says we need to double global food production by 2050.

Drones can revolutionize precision agriculture and help us increase crop yields enough to meet that unnerving challenge in a responsible and sustainable way. They can help assess and specifically target water, pesticide and fertilizer distribution, and help us identify and differentiate between pests, diseases, weeds and stress. This level of accuracy helps farmers make empirically informed decisions, and enables them to cut back on water, pesticide and fertilizer use.

If you take that principle in agriculture and multiply it out across other industries — any job that requires you to look at something, basically, plus many other fields that involve different sensory inputs and so on — the promise suddenly becomes quite clear.

Are drones a tech proposition or a value-add for the growing Internet of Things?

Anderson: Drones transcend the divide between physical and digital, atoms and bits. Instead of just looking down at our thumbs twiddling on a phone screen, with drones we’ll be using those phones and other digital technology to re-emerge into the real world — to interact with the physical world around us in incredible new ways, and to document and change that physical world.

An historical note: The first recorded use of drones for attack was July 15, 1849, when the Habsburg Austrian Empire launched 200 pilotless balloons armed with bombs against revolutionary citizens in Venice.

Can you put this moment into context — i.e., comparable to printing press, early radio in its potential to bring long-term, significant social shift?

Anderson: It’s the dawn of the personal computer. We had no idea just how far the computer would go, how much of our daily lives computers would become involved with and improve. Drones have the same potential. They’re an enabling technology, and through our open platform we want to enable innovation and aerial ideas of all kinds. Innovation happens anywhere, and we want to empower imagination, no matter where it is. We won’t be the ones who directly change the world, but we will be the ones to empower those who will.

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