People have compared the burgeoning drone market to the early days of PCs, comparing it with the Homebrew Computer Club, the Bay Area hobbyist meetup where the Apple I was first unveiled. It may seem an odd comparison—the drone is thought of as military technology and (more recently) luxury plaything, while the Homebrew Computer Club is remembered for its Utopian beliefs about putting technology into the hands of the people. But while Apple's forays into personal computers were ground breaking, the "PC" abbreviation historically referred to its greatest threat, the IBM PC standard, a revolutionary form of computer architecture that was easily licensed and copied, and which shaped the personal computer market for over a decade. Drones do not yet have a "PC standard," but if they did, it might be the tipping point that could catapult drones into the mainstream and unlock their social utility.
We have yet to see what this social utility will be. Militarized drone technology has a well-established place among the many tools of the surveillance state. Looking at the history of the computer's shift from an awkward, heavy, military and commercial engineering project to something we carry in our pockets, one wonders how drones might make a similar transition. Some of the first ideas for non-military drones, such as catching poachers, have some way to go in development before they will actually be useful. So far, one of the best uses for drone technology is in the field of cartography mapping large areas very quickly, and rectify imagery to GPS maps. But drones like these cost thousands of dollars and run proprietary software in order to work so seamlessly. What if drone technology were to be transformed in a similar manner to computers, so that standard architecture and operating systems allowed cheaper, more universal hardware and software?
In the late 1970s, desk-sized computers were typically terminals linked to mainframes where the real processing was done. But with the miniaturization of transistor functions into integrated circuits, desktop computers became possible. These early personal computers were sold as kits, and required a hefty investment as well as technical know-how to assemble and operate. When the Apple II was introduced in 1977, it was one of the first "out of the box" personal computers; BYTE magazine called it the first "appliance computer". But the Apple II was still expensive, and with an operating system and architecture limited to this machine only, all compatible software had to be designed specifically for this system. In 1980, less than 10% of 14 million small businesses in the US had personal computers, and of large corporations, less than 3% used personal computers on a regular basis. Investing in a limited hobby system was not a priority for most companies.
IBM, one of the primary providers of business computers and machines in the 1970s, did not want to be left behind by Apple, Tandy, Atari, and the other hobbyist offerings, and set out to design their own. But rather than simply introduce another competing proprietary system, they produced an open system. They designed an architecture that was larger than necessary, accessible, and easy for the user to understand. They hired Microsoft to develop an operating system that could be licensed independently from the hardware.
Once the news got out that "Big Blue" was making a PC, peripheral and software companies sat up and took notice. Because they could easily reverse-engineer the architecture and license the OS, by the time the IBM PC hit the market, there were software and peripherals ready to be purchased alongside it. It wasn't long until cheaper, compatible clones were sold by other computer manufacturers, for which one could use the exactly same software and parts as for an IBM PC. As businesses began adopting personal computers and figuring out how to use them, they chose IBM PC-compatible systems; this, because they could be assured their investment wouldn't be outdated or isolated from other software and systems.
The IBM PC is a famous story in support of open standards—although IBM lost sales by not preventing cheap clones of their product, they gained the market domination of their design standard, which still enabled them to keep the widest potential customer base among businesses with the budget for large purchases. In addition, the standard allowed smaller companies to take the risk of spending their own development resources on designing software and peripherals. Companies like Lotus and Compaq—let alone Microsoft—would not have developed their own products without this standard to rely on (we can see the benefits of open standards in other technology as well, for example USB and WiFi 802.11 standards; and in the failure of Betamax video technology and HD-DVD, we can see what is at stake with competing proprietary design standards).
In the consumer drone swarm there are, as yet, no standards. The most popular consumer drones are the DJI Phantom line, which comes with a closed operating system and associated software. For more adventurous hobbyists, such as the 3DRobotics company, selling kits using components such as the Pixhawk autopilot, which runs on the PX4 open-source firmware. But while this open-source system is a powerful tool for the hacker-minded drone operator, it isn't exactly accessible to those not familiar with unix-like OS. Even the US military's open standards for drone control have been unevenly adopted. The history of the IBM PC was not a targeted goal, but the combination of several technological factors that managed to come together at the right time.
An "IBM PC for drones" standard would likely make it much easier to self-assemble drones from component pieces—and to fix them if they broke. In the same way that one can pull together a motherboard, a hard drive, a power supply and a video card and have a functional computer, one could plug together a battery, an autopilot, some motors and speed controllers, an RF receiver and a sensor kit and have a functional drone. The open-source kits are moving in this direction, but we are not yet at plug-and-play.
Costs would also drop, as manufacturers would be certain that their newer, cheaper components could easily be subbed into the drone's open-architecture. Specialised software could be developed, certain to run on any drone, making some of the likely drone tasks that much more accessible: precision agriculture software, hobby flying software, aerial mapping software, or cinematic filming software. Currently, single-use drones designed for these specific tasks are sold by companies targeting one particular market. A cheap, standardised "drone clone" could enable a new generation of "drone literate" businesses and households, and from there, who knows what classes of new software would result.
We might remember that word processing and accounting software was hardly an obvious use for home PCs before the IBM PC clone price point made this market possible. Computers could handle text and data, but what this was "good for" was as yet undiscovered. Drones can handle imagery. What happens when you make a flying camera available to every home? Right now, we have drone selfies and mountain biking videos. But drones could provide analysis of home insulation, find the best place for solar panels or a satellite dish, inspect for roof leaks, or figure out how the squirrels are getting into the attic. Super accurate and updated aerial maps of neighbourhoods could track infestations, help with urban gardening, track traffic patterns, map pedestrian and bicycle commuting, among many other data intensive tasks. An Australian company uses camera drones to find methane gas leaks released during fracking operations; demonstrators have used drones to monitor the police (and have sometimes had their drones shot down by officers). To discover what drones are "good for," we must separate them from what they are currently marketed for in closed, proprietary silos, and let people discover their uses themselves.
DJI updated its software to ensure its drones couldn't fly in no-fly area. But that only applies to their drones. Standardised software could enable wide-reaching safety upgrades. Also, a standard architecture could allow new safety components, such as sense-and-avoid technology, the widest possible adoption. And compatibility standards could take security into account, requiring GPS systems to be resistant to spoofing, and drones' data collection to adhere to privacy standards. But of course, there will be downsides. There will be malware, just as there was when PCs became common and networked. There will be unresolved privacy issues, just as there are, still, with computers today.
But drones are not PCs, and a historical model is no guarantee of parallel development. In particular, there is considerable public anxiety about hobbyist drone usage in a way that differs from the reception of the personal computer. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Americans are much more comfortable with the use of drones by police than by news organisations or private individuals; this may prove to be a bigger barrier to its social utility than any technical standard. Perhaps drones will never be a widespread technology but a limited, specialist tool—more like a mail processing machine or a forklift than a computer, perfect for particular businesses but useless to others. At this point, as the technology continues to evolve, it is difficult to predict. But open standards for drones will put them in the hands of more people for purposes that go beyond law enforcement and surveillance, to help us discover what the capacities of this technology are, and in as many areas as possible.
Revolutionary drone operator has Team NZ flying high in Bermuda
A ground-breaking drone and its American operator has helped Team New Zealand win the America's Cup.
Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby recruited Wisconsin's Nick Bowers as the syndicate's performance analyst on the back of his revolutionary work with the flying cameras.
As Emirates Team New Zealand surged to a famous win against defenders Oracle Team USA, revelations seep out about the ground-breaking technology they are using beyond their radical cycling grinders and remote wing control system.
The New York Times reported that Bowers has developed a drone that is capable of accelerating from 0-96 km/h in one second. That enables his lens to keep pace with the foiling 50-foot catamarans that approach that top-end speed and has proven a problem for stock-standard drones.
Bowers has also developed a technique to fly his drones at angles others haven't mastered, even getting below the level of the hulls that lift out of the water.
America's Cup teams use onboard cameras to sync with telemetric data coming off the multiple sensors that cover these boats. Bowers' drone work, done from the Team New Zealand chase boat, has added another dimension in terms of synchronising the crew's work to the catamaran's performance. Bowers, who made his name filming smaller foiling catamarans, said he needed to make adjustments to cope with the demands of yachting's biggest arena. "I wanted to film one of these America's Cup boats sailing upwind, but nothing commercially available could do that," he told The New York Times.
"It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, 'I want to build drones.' It was done out of necessity."
The Kiwis snared Bowers from under the nose of defenders Oracle with his ground-breaking work known to the United States Olympic sailing programme. Leandro Spina, the development director of that programme, said: "He can fly in conditions other people cannot. When it gets pretty windy, Nick will fly. Other people will be like, 'No, it's too windy.' But he has no limitation with drones."
Bower said his breakthrough technique came out of necessity. Initially he filmed without a monitor because he couldn't afford one. He instead watched the drone rather than a video feed, discovering it gave him better control and footage, especially when running the drone right alongside the catamaran. He also replaced the traditional wide-angle lens with one that had a more direct focus. "Basically, I wanted to trick people into thinking I was flying a big camera," he said.
Bowers and his young family moved to Auckland for the development phase of the Team New Zealand boat. Sadly, Bowers wasn't in Bermuda to witness the crowning glory of his work because of Bermuda's strict drones’ laws. Drones were banned from flying above the regatta course on the Great Sound and other areas in Bermuda from May 22 to June 30.
But the innovator hasn't stood still. The New York Times reported he and his family, which now includes a son born in Auckland, have headed back to Wisconsin, where he is trying to start his own company, Bear UAV, using a 3-D carbon fibre printer to stamp out new drones.
It was late 2015 and I had just taken possession of my first drone. The mighty X6SW complete with FPV HD camera. I had agonised for months over which was the one for me. Was it the Syma X5SW or the X5HW? So after hitting some review sites I decided the X6SW was the better choice. Sure enough it takes two weeks to get from China to my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand.
Sitting in the lounge I open up the box and after a few minutes of assembly, I am good to go. Batteries in, drone on, controller on and it's ready for lift off! Watch this!
So out comes the manual. Turns out it is filled with all the information I needed to know to allow me to get my drone off the carpet! After a few hours spent hovering and calibrating, recharging and laughing at the cat's reaction, I feel proficient enough to take it into the backyard and fly the drone out in the breeze.
Now, we had plenty of trees in our yard so I made sure I stayed well clear. Our 5 year old was full of advice, "Go higher", go faster", "give me a turn" "do a flip" "give me a turn. Again a few hours were spent flying and recharging, flying and recharging. I spend the next few days practising flying my drone. I seem to have a thing for the trees. Several times I fly it into them, but they are not large and I am able to extract my drone from them each time.
Confidence is growing. I can hover. I can fly in a figure of eight. I can land it right side up. I can do flips. The one thing I have not done is fly my drone above 5 metres for fear of landing it on the neighbours garage roof.
So it's off to the park with our 5 year old in tow. He is as excited as I am. I am standing in the middle of a cricket pitch with all the airspace in I need to give my X6SW Camera Drone a good fly. Up and up it goes then out and out it goes. people are watching. I feel so proud! I am controlling that drone up there! So majestic. I can still recall the tears of laughter rolling down the wee fellas face as I am clinging to a thick branch 15 feet up poking at my now wedged drone with a broom handle, trying to knock it out of the tree I had flown it into. People walking below me giving me curious looks, some shaking their heads, others making snide remarks and one pleasant person encouraging me "just a little bit further" she said.
A few weeks go by and the drone sits on my shelf mocking me. It's Xmas and we are at the lakeside bach. My plan? To fly over the bach and take an aerial photo to frame and put on the wall. "Who took that""? they would ask. "JD did. With his drone" others would reply. I never did get that photo. There is still a space on the wall where that image isn't. Nobody says anything, as they walk up the driveway under the drone, stuck at the top of the tree, at the start of the driveway. It has been there for 18 months now in high winds, torrential rain, intense UV rays and it still remains intact. It also has a new role.
I began my career as a builder and progressed through to the owner of Mojo NZ Ltd. The first drone I owned is to this day lodged in a tree on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We now provide drones to all industries from toys to racing drones to professional camera drones. This blog is a look at ourselves and the industry in general.