In this interview with GE’s “Look Ahead” section in The Economist (his former employer), Chris explains why he thinks drones will change the way we work, play and live, as well how a dad with a spare weekend became one of the most prominent advocates of affordable drones and began mass-producing them himself.
How did you get interested in building drones for the masses?
It’s simply a case of parenting gone horribly wrong. I have five children, and I’m always trying to get them excited about science and technology and it’s hard. It’s video games versus test tubes, and video games tend to win. At Wired we were fortunate enough to get these cool products in every week for review. On Friday nights if no one had claimed a product I would take it home to try it out on the kids. One Friday there was a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit, which hadn’t yet been released, and a radio-controlled airplane. I thought this would be awesome. On Saturday we’ll build a robot, on Sunday we’ll fly a plane. On Saturday we built the robot, and discovered that Hollywood has kind of ruined robotics. We built it, and then it slowly rolled toward the wall and bounced off. The kids were like, “You’ve got to be kidding! We’ve seen Transformers. Where are the freakin’ lasers?” On Sunday we took the plane to the field and I crashed it into a tree. The kids thought this was totally predictable, that Dad’s science projects had once again failed. And I was just thinking, “How could that have gone better?” I thought, “Well, what would have been a cooler robot?” And the answer is a flying robot. And, “What would have been a better-flying plane?” And the answer is a robotic airplane. So I Googled “flying robot,” and the first result was “drone.” Then I Googled “drone,” and the first result was “autopilot.” I Googled “autopilot” and the first result was a lot of math that I didn’t understand. I said to the kids, “Look, one last experiment. Let’s build an autopilot out of Legos, the Lego Mindstorms kit, and put it in this plane.” And that’s what we did on the dining room table one Sunday night, and today that Lego drone is in the Lego museum in Billund [Denmark]. It worked. It was kind of amazing. It was, like, it should not be possible for a father and his kids to build a drone out of toy parts on the dining room table. The kids lost interest, of course instantaneously, being kids, but I got chills.
Should we be worried about millions of drones in the skies watching us?
Cameras are colonizing the world. Cameras are everywhere, and drones are just another vector by which cameras colonize the world. This one happens to be 3D. It happens to be up rather than out, but it’s just more cameras, and the way we feel about drones is sort of the way that we feel about traffic cameras and security cameras. At least in the United States, it’s the job of communities to decide how they feel about this and to set the rules accordingly. There’s no one right answer and we had to set up a coalition, a small UAV coalition with Amazon and our two biggest competitors, DJI and Parrot out of France, to put in place the mechanisms by which, if a community decides that they don’t want drones in a certain area, we can substantiate that with software and help enforce it.
What do you see as one of the biggest potential near-term uses for drones?
Agriculture is what in robotics we would call an open-loop system, which is to say you plant, and then you wait, and then something happens. And it’s hard to monitor. You basically spray chemicals prophylactically, but the farms are too big and there’s too few people working on them to really monitor what’s going on on a daily basis. If only we could close the loop with data and be able to over-fly crops on a daily or weekly or even hourly basis and get high-resolution, multi-spectral image processing. This would help spot fungal infections, pests or irrigation problems and quickly address them rather than just using gallons of chemicals to compensate. With that would come the ability to lower the chemical load in our environment and our food, increase yield, and ultimately make farms more productive by simply using data. It’s a big opportunity.
Can these drone-enabled benefits to agriculture help in emerging markets as well as in the industrialized world?
Oh, absolutely! Most agriculture is in the developing world. There’s nothing first-worldly about what I just described. Drones are the cheapest way. Drones cost less than $1,000. It’s a one-time cost. There’s nothing terribly expensive or complicated about this.
What’s next for drone technology?
The simple answer is smaller, cheaper, faster, better. That we’ve basically hit the personal computer moment in our industry. Which is to say, [just as] there were mainframes before, there were military drones before from aerospace companies that cost millions of dollars, and now we’re making [the drone equivalent of] personal computers. It’s just gotten to the point where they’re easy enough to use and cheap enough and reliable enough that regular people can use them rather than roboticists. I think we’ve just turned the corner and made it possible for regular people to ask the question: “I could have a drone. What could I do with it?” And I suspect that the answers that users come up with collectively over the next decade will dwarf anything that I can think of right now.
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