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Drones: War machine today, helpful tool tomorrow

Marketplace Contributor Jan 10, 2013

Drones: War machine today, helpful tool tomorrow

Marketplace Contributor Jan 10, 2013

When you hear the word drone, images of warfare or high-tech surveillance come to mind. But the former editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and a young Tijuana programmer have a different idea. They believe drones will revolutionize our everyday lives.

Outside a warehouse in San Diego, engineers huddle over a computer. They are about to launch a drone, a remote-controlled aerial vehicle. They punch in a “start” and “end” point on a map, and it takes off.

But the quadcopter that zips by looks like a toddler’s nightstand. It doesn’t look that threatening.  And that’s what Chris Anderson is betting on. He believes in a decade, drones will have evolved way beyond their current military uses.

“You’ll think of them being like crop dusters,” Anderson said. “You will think of them in entirely new context. We’ll forget that drones were once a defense industry thing and we’ll think of it as something you’ll buy at Walmart.”

What makes a drone a drone is the ability to go from point A to point B, with a click of a mouse or touch of a screen, without direct human interaction. It’s a robot using GPS to perform a simple command: go here. But it’s also a launch pad for amazing possibilities. All you need to do is look down at your cell phone to see how fast technology progresses.

Anderson gives an example. “What if we sold a box that you can put on your belt and while you’re out windsurfing, a drone can just follow you 30 feet up, 30 feet back. Keep your camera on you as you did your cool stuff. That perfect aerial view.”

Imagine how this could impact search and rescue missions or, even, pizza deliveries. These flying nightstands could transform into hoverboards a la “Back To The Future,” or into a fleet of mail carriers.

In 2007, Chris Anderson became obsessed with the possibility of drones. So much so he started a blog, DIY (Do It Yourself) Drones, to learn about the emerging landscape.

A few hundred miles south, Jordi Muñoz was ripping apart a toy helicopter and Nintendo Wii. The 21-year-old programmer was scouring Google to find out how to use sensors from the Wii to get his helicopter to fly straight.

Muñoz remembers, “One week when I Googled something I didn’t find anything, and the week later I Googled the same thing, and I found this blog.”

He joined the DIY Drones blog and started sharing the code from his project. “I was just in my own world in a bubble, I was super obsessed trying to make it work, finally making it work and posted it online. I didn’t realize I was doing something high-end.”

Anderson was blown away by that code. The two immediately hit it off and began collaborating.

Fast-forward five years, today they’re running a multi-million-dollar cross-border company that produces and sells hardware and personal drones. The company, 3D Robotics, found success in Muñoz’s misunderstood hometown, Tijuana.

“Prior to 18 months ago, I thought Tijuana was drug cartels and cheap tequila,” Anderson said. “What Jordi knew and taught me was that Tijuana is the Shenzhen of North America.”

Shenzhen is China’s manufacturing epicenter just north of Hong Kong.

“It’s not just cheap, it’s better skilled. They graduate more engineers. Those manufacturing skills that we lost in much of the United States are still there,” Anderson said.

Anderson believes their use of Tijuana’s high-skilled, low-cost labor teamed with San Diego’s engineers is the business model of future.

The goal now is to streamline the whole process for the consumer. Buy the drone, download the app, type in coordinates and go. Simple enough for a grandmother to fly and open source for programmers to reinvent the product.

But drones remain suspect. Many are concerned about a more invasive drone future – with devices like flying sniper rifles or hovering spy cameras.

Ask Chris Anderson and he will tell you it’s entirely possible. “Do we limit the technology so we can’t use it for ill? I would ask you the same thing about your phone or your computer. General-purpose technologies are incredibly empowering, they change the world, but by definition they don’t limit the way you use it. If somebody’s going to do something stupid, you can’t stop them.”

Remember, computer technology got its biggest early boost from the military. Chris Anderson is banking on the inevitability that the good this technology could do — food drops in Africa or firefighting down the street — will ultimately outweigh the harm drones could cause.

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