Let me start by saying that there were kids in the audience of the Drones, Data X Conference held this past weekend in Santa Cruz, something I have not seen at any other tech conference. I thought it was pretty cool. At the end, I found there was a reason for kids to be there.
From the very first presentation it became clear that this is not really about the drones. The drones were almost harshly referred to as “hardware.”
Dr. Ernest Earon from Precision Hawk, the company that flies its drones for agriculture, oil & gas, and such, said “Farmers are not interested in buying hardware, or buy pictures of their crop. They need answers to their questions, and solutions to their problems.”
Similarly, Will Sauer, the speaker from Skycatch, the mapping company, said that this is about “how to get from raw images to making better decisions.”
All that made me feel right at home. Nothing disrupting about drones to our day-to-day, just another tool in a toolbox of different ways to help the users with what they need.
I truly appreciated a talk by Andreas Raptopoulos from Matternet. It is a great example of the product being built around a need of people rather than a need of the technology to find an application.
Matternet makes small drones that can deliver packages under 1kg. The drones were built to deliver medicine to rural areas with bad or no roads with projects pilots in Bhutan, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea.
On a subject of rural areas, apparently there is much work to be done for the drones to go urban. There is a lot of drone hype and make-believe, and the reality is still far from it.
In reality, the drones are not autonomous yet. Making self-driving cars is a child game comparing to the complexity of making self-flying vehicle. Drones have no roads to follow; drones need to see not only what’s in front of them but all around; unlike cars, drones don’t have much room for all the processors and sensors; and unlike cars, drones must be cheap.
Philip McNamara (@McNamara_Philip), the conference organizer, entertained us with this Cirque du Soleil lampshade movie to illustrate how precise autonomous flight control algorithms are becoming.
Autonomy, infrastructure, and regulations are the road blocks that will delay the appearance of Amazon Prime Air and its likes for some time.
NASA has being tasked to build a traffic management infrastructure for low altitudes. I visualized what the presenter, Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, said as invisible highways, bike lanes, traffic stops, etc. in the sky built with geofencing. Unlike their down to earth counterparts, these roads could be reconfigured and adjusted in a real time from the Internet.
While the sensor technology for autonomous flying and the traffic infrastructure are maturing, the regulations are here to hold the enthusiasm back. In the US, out-of-sight flying is not allowed; any commercial flying needs to come with the appropriate licenses and certificates, and recreational flying is only allowed in the open away from people.
Jim Williams from Federal Aviation Administration said that we are facing “out of box aviator” phenomena where anyone can buy a drone and enter the skies without any awareness of rules and responsibilities that come with that. “This is where the most regulated sector, aviations, meets least regulated sector, tech” he said.
In the meantime, Matternet will be trying the drone delivery project in Switzerland where the infrastructure is most mature and regulations are most permitting. With the Swiss project, Matternet will be trying to address “the last mile delivery” problem.
Here is my laundry list of all the applications that I’ve heard at the conference: agriculture, emergency response, construction, mining, oil and gas, forestry, ocean and lakes, insurance, transportation, surveying, delivery, wireless connectivity (this one refers to Facebook Wi-Fi drones), and renewable energy (this one refers to wind-harvesting drones to replace wind towers).
And what about those kids in the audience? Apparently, some of them were with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) first person view (FPV) drone racing program. To the spectators, the drone race looks like minimized and slow version Quidditch.
But not so for the pilots! Did you know that you race a drone with the VR-like goggles on?
The pilot sees what the drone sees. So as a pilot, you are basically getting the ultimate x-box flying experience. As Scot Refsland (@srefsland), the presenter from Flying Grounds said the experience is very “sticky.” He suggests that this is much healthier for the kids to be out in a field racing drones than in front of a box. He believes being involved with the drones also teaches technology, and, yes, even secures kids’ future.