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 take 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 as being like crop dusters," said Anderson." 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 Wal-Mart.”
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.
As an example, Anderson says, “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 hover boards a la “Back to the Future” or 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.
At the same time, a few hundred miles south, Jordi Muñoz was ripping apart a toy helicopter and a Nintendo Wii. The 21-year-old programmer was scouring Google to find out how to use the 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 a week later, I Googled the same thing, and I found this blog.”
3D Robotics co-founder Jordi Muñoz.
He joined the DIY Drones blog and started sharing the code from his project. “I was just in my own world in a bubble. So, 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, and 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," said Anderson. "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’ve lost in much of the United States are still there.” 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 the coordinates and go. Simple enough for a grandmother to fly, and an 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 literarily banking on the inevitability that the good this technology could do -- be it food drops in Africa or fire fighting down the street -- will ultimately outweigh the destruction it could cause.