Posted on December 2, 2013 |
Amazon made a waves on Monday after announcing that, someday, it will deliver goods via drones, rather than the FedEx man. It’s a fun thought — and no coincidence that it’s right in time for the holidays when the commerce giant wants people remembering its services — but it’s not a new one, especially for one software developer.
Frankly, it would have been ridiculous if Amazon wasn’t putting some eggs in a drone basket. The idea of having unmanned crafts to do our bidding, bellicose or otherwise, has been around for decades. Just ask the people behind the Tacocopter. But there are plenty of technological factors — battery life, rotor speed, payload, regulations, communication and sensory software and hardware — that have to improve before books and other goods are buzzing the skies in a little drone’s talons.
Even still, it’s not hard to spot the promise. You could go out and fly a drone right from your pocket today. Companies like Parrot and DIY Drones make amateur copters and provide apps that turn your smartphone into a remote control so you can zoom around, take a picture or buzz the dog.
But Nelson Paez wants to build something bigger. His company, DreamHammer is building a software platform to build applications for controlling unmanned boats, planes or trucks. His company has beenworking with both Lockheed and the Pentagon to build the software. He’s now looking to bring that platform to the private sector.
But making that bridge away from DoD dollars hasn’t been smooth sailing. We chatted a couple weeks before Amazon’s news and he relayed frustrations on the level of investment in drone technology in the Bay Area. He likens it to a kindergarten’s soccer game, where every child chases the ball (the opportunity du jour) around the field, rather than going to where the ball will be in the future.
“There’s no question Silicon Valley needs to pull its head out of its butt and stop focusing on 140-character tweets,” he says. Nothing will change “until someone shows you can make money with drones, and the soccer ball moves, and everyone follows it.” Perhaps Amazon’s big promises will catalyze some of that. Paez, obviously, has a stake in the game. More investment in drones, the more potential money for his company (and him).
The blame isn’t squarely on the investment community. The Federal Aviation Administration has been drawing up new regulations for unmanned aircraft. Right now commercial use is not allowed; only broad rules exist for hobbyists. Many complain the governing body — despite the sunny projections of the economic impact by interest groups — is moving too slowly to keep pace with demand.
Worries about a surveillance state and careless warfare in the Middle East often blurs the discussion about drones. This can often be diffused by simply changing terminology: quadcopter, unmanned aircraft and even remote controlled planes are usually interchangeable terms. Amazon using the word “drone” will sway that discussion as well — though we shouldn’t let it dull reservations about unmanned crafts in law enforcement hands.
“Drone” really means any remote controlled vehicle. Drone tractors are finding a place on big farms. Drone boats are zipping around the oceans, sometimes way under the water and shooting down missiles. Just about anything that needs a driver, pilot or operator could someday be a drone.
“It’s that convergence that will lead to the next industrial revolution,” Paez says. “When we can start making drones multi-application capable, then it’s going to explode.”
Even outside surveillance concerns, a lot of caution is still warranted. Drones need to communicate so they’re not slamming into one another. And most drones have finite ranges to their controllers; when they go outside of it they either drop out of the sky or head straight until they hit something. And since there’s no way to “manually” fly a drone should the computer go out, stable software and anti-virus safety is a major consideration as well.