The case for drones

Everyone knows that the military has all the best gizmos. They are way ahead of the civilian world. And they ought to be with all the money they throw at everything.  I remember when a military buddy of mine “accidentally” left the base with a pair of night vision goggles sometime around 1990.  We had a blast with those things.

So what does it mean when the “Do It Yourselfers” move ahead of the military?

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine had a bad weekend with his kids back in 2007, and ended up turning that “failure” into the Do It Yourself Drone revolution.

On that Saturday he and the kids built a LEGO robot. After over an hour assembling and programing the robot, the kids were pretty disappointed when it could “only roll forward and bounce feebly off a wall.” Kids these days expect a lot from a toy, and the LEGO robot was not cutting the mustard.

Sunday was going to be better though, because they were going to fly a remote controlled airplane. It was pre-assembled, so no tedious assembly to worry about.  The kids gotta be impressed with flying a RC plane right?  But dad flew the plane right into a tree.  Oops.

Bummer!  A weekend of quality time with dad down the tubes.

But Anderson decided to go on a run to get his head together after the wasted weekend. And while he was running he was thinking about what went wrong.  The robot didn’t do much, even though it had all these cool electronic sensors in it.  And the plane was too hard to fly.  Hmm?  What if he put the brain of the robot into the remote control plane?

He tried it and lo and behold it worked, with a few bugs.  In order to get help working out the bugs he started a website calles  This was a website where other geeky hobbyists could trade ideas and get their auto piloted gizmos flying better. The site was a huge success and now has over 26,000 members.

The hobbyists were able to use “sensors from mobile phones and chips that cost less than a cup of coffee” according to Anderson. And “feature by feature, they were matching—or besting—aerospace electronics that had cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

As technology becomes smaller and cheaper, the cool stuff that only happened in the military is now happening in backyards across the nation. You can buy micro chips with all the complex sensors needed to build sophisticated autopilots at RadioShack for about $17.

When you combine this with an open source platform like, and let anyone who is interested add their two cents amazing things start to happen.

For example, the most popular military drone in the world weighs just over 4 pounds.  It is called the Raven.

Over 19,000 Ravens  are being used for unmanned surveillance in over 18 countries. So how much do these little things cost?  Well most estimates put them at about $35,000 each.

The geeks at DIYDrones have created a drone with 90% of the functionality of the Raven for a lot less. In fact it can be built for about $350 — 1/100th of the price taxpayers pony up for the military version. Yes, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the Raven, but it’s close.

Nobody likes the ideas of government drones dropping bombs and killing children or spying on citizens, but the DIY drones are already being used for better purposes.

They are being used to film new action sequences in Hollywood movies, and to give viewers entirely different perspectives at sporting events.

What is really exciting is what they will be used for in the near future. Remember, this technology is in its infancy. What about delivering medicine to folks in rural Africa, or rural America for that matter. Every rural hospital will not need to keep its own supplies of meds. They can all be kept in one central location, and delivered as needed.  What about delivering replacement parts to farmers?

What happens when the DIY Drone technology is combined with the 3D printing revolution.

Next day delivery will become a thing of the past.   Our kids will think that “overnight” delivery is so old fashioned.

Imagine ordering a product that is sent to a local 3D printer where it is fabricated within an hour, then attached to an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that brings it right to you, wherever you are.  If you are out in a field it will bring it there. If you go in for lunch it will find you there. Within and hour and a half you could have your order in your hand.

Thanks for the delivery.

Imagine the amazing productivity gains.

So are drones good?

They are intrinsically neither.  They are just like a hammer. It all depends on how they are used. But the technology is here and it is rapidly expanding. Drones have a deservedly bad rap for the mayhem and destruction they can deliver and the opportunities they present to violate our civil liberties. But in the private sector out of the hands of government, drone technology is being developed for decidedly more productive uses. As scary as drones can be, even drones have capabilities that can help us live more productive, decentralized lives.


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