This is The Digital Life, episode 193 in three, two, one. Welcome to episode 193 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
On this episode of The Digital Life we’re going to discuss the next wave of drone technology and answer the question or try to answer the question, have we entered the age of the drone?
Jon, were you being punny when you mentioned wave of drone technology?
Yes, I’m super smart. Of course, most of the country saw the massive swarming drone light display that was part of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show. To be honest, and I love technology and I saw that Intel was somehow associated with the halftime show, but I thought we were just seeing a bunch of computer effects overlaid on Lady Gaga’s show at the very beginning of it.
Yes. It was a prerecorded addition to the show, but they did use these Intel Shooting Star drone system to create an effect much like sophisticated fireworks. Sure, there was much more than that going on, the drones moved around as Lady Gaga sung a medley of patriotic tunes and they had a variety of colors and it was well coordinated. To be honest, it probably is more interesting as a proof of concept, like that you can have these drones do these things, but in terms of being impressed by the visual nature of it, it wasn’t … You probably could have done a better job just using special effects.
I don’t know, Jon. Those drones got jiggy like a Polaroid picture. those drones, they’re human almost. They’re sentient beings.
Putting aside for a second that it probably wasn’t going to blow your mind that these drones were dancing with Lady Gaga.
Dancing with. Look at what you just did there.
Putting aside that for a second, it is significant that number one, you have a major company like Intel that’s investing their technology, their …
Inside the Super Bowl show.
Right. I mean, they are spending a lot of money to push this, what amounts to basically a fireworks system, light display system that’s powered by drone technology, which says to me that they’re aiming to be creating, producing, manufacturing a lot of drones in the near future. What they want to do from a brand perspective is create the desire probably from more like the B2B community, but the desire of people to start seeing this technology used in different ways, beginning in the entertainment field, I’m sure. But there are so many more, what I find to be interesting deployments of drone technology, or more interesting possibilities anyway.
For instance, I know that Facebook is working on their drone to help deliver wireless internet to areas that are impoverished or areas that are not wired, that don’t have access to the web, et cetera. I find that project to be pretty compelling in so far as I know that Facebook has their own desirements in terms of getting people online, but also it says that there’s this new 21st century infrastructure for the internet that’s going to be deployed via these small, flying vehicles. No longer digging underground and laying cables or stringing wires across telephone poles or what have you. You can deploy infrastructure into remote areas via the skies. I find that pretty compelling.
I put together a list of some of the commercial aspects that drones could be applied to that I thought were particularly interesting, and I thought we could talk about those and see if we can imagine any additional uses.
One that I thought was pretty brilliant was for search and rescue. There seemed to be unfortunately all kinds of natural disasters in which people are trapped in remote areas or where at least human beings aren’t able to get to them very quickly, and whether it’s landslides or earthquakes or what have you. Emergency crews can use drones to find people immediately after natural disasters when the roadways are impassable, or we all know about the stories of foolish hikers going up on mountains, whether they get trapped up there because it’s too cold or they got lost or they can’t find their way back, whatever, drones can be deployed I would think at much less expense than sending out search parties and hopefully bring these folks back in one piece.
Albeit you have to send out a helicopter still, but at least you know exactly where the person is now, so search and rescue, very potentially important area for drone deployment. In the agriculture industry, we all know that farms are increasingly becoming high-tech places and they’re doing a lot of work in agriculture with a lot fewer people, and doing things like inspecting crops, distributing fertilizer, pesticides, what have you, across many, many acres with fewer people and enabling better tending of the crops and better yields and outputs. That’s another area that I’ve seen touted as ripe for drone application. Following up on our first area there, delivering humanitarian supplies, and medicine, maybe in war zones by non-governmental organizations, so you have war zones across the world where human beings, I mean, unless they’re fighting, are in very dire straights and we all know in Syria, for instance, there’s just no way that any humanitarian supplies can get in.
Now, I’m not saying that drones are going to necessarily be able to get in there as well, but at least you wouldn’t be putting people in buses or caravans and putting them at risk for being blown up. There’s a couple others. Land surveys for scientists and archeologists, of course, entertainment and eSports, we talked about drone racing, and then of course my favorite, surveillance, right?
Jon loves him some surveillance.
Yep. Just spying on people. What strikes me about this drone technology and what I find compelling about it is this idea that we are really enabling remote interaction, remote surveillance, remote delivery in real time and providing, extending our grasp into areas that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise …
I think these are all economic questions when we’re talking about drones, ultimately.
Some of the fantastical applications of drones are a little bit silly, like yeah, it’s a little silly that a drone would deliver your Amazon package, which is sort of the premier application when it comes to the commercial sector, or at least the case study that people talk about a lot. That’s as much about Amazon showing off as it is anything else, but it does open the door to this idea that we can transport our ideas and our content via the internet but the physical interaction over distance up until now has been a little bit difficult. Drones give us the opportunity to impact at a distance, in a physical manner, and I think this is probably an underestimated technology in terms of the overall impact it will have, because remember, unlike some of the other emerging technologies we talk about, drones are actually deployed and being used in all manner of things already.
Like, drones are already tested and in use, it’s just a matter of commercializing those uses. I’ve talked plenty about my drone fantasies, Dirk. You started talking about the economics of it. Could you expand on that?
Definitely. The context for drones that really made me think had to do with military and I read something recently. The F-35, which is the most advanced US fighter plane at this point, there’s a number of models. The cheapest of them costs 150 million dollars for a single airplane. The most expensive costs well more than double than that, so depending on which branch of service it’s being outfitted for and some other factors that I’m not conversated in, but let’s talk about the base model, the 150 million for a single airplane. To make a drone that can carry a little bomb is under $100, all right? You could have a country with 15 million drones with bombs for every 1 F-35. This article was making the point that technologies like the F-35 are in certain ways, obsolete.
Like, they’re the cutting edge of where the top technology and R&D manifestation of the most powerful single flying vehicle could be, but if I can send a cloud of 15 million drones into the sky for your one F-35, your one F-35’s going to have a really frickin hard time impacting my country, impacting my ships or my whatever things I have functioning in that part of the battlefield. What drones do that are interesting in that military context, as well as in some of the context that you’ve talked about, is they become this super cheap, highly portable device to move about to different places, far away places, very, very cheaply. The cost to make them is cheap, the cost to operate them is cheap.
The fact that if that drone that costs $30 gets lost, it’s not the end of the world, whereas if you send a brave, heroic human to make the rescue effort and they die in the attempt, I mean, that’s a much greater catastrophe than $30, right? What really was poignant to me in the military example but strikes me in all of these other examples is it’s the machines as manifested by drones in the context of flying in these cases of being these really disposable, these really affordable solutions and showing that the old paths that we’ve been on to the pinnacle of technology and perhaps the pinnacle of science in some ways is just … The F-35 is a quagmire. It’s a 150 million dollar quagmire, to get one plane for that cost when effective countermeasures can be done for a small fraction of that price. That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about.
Yeah. That’s a good way to look at it, because it highlights the asymmetric nature of this technology. I mean, epitomized by the example that you just gave, like the technology has made it inexpensive for smaller players to have just as much leverage as larger ones, and that is the technology trend generally speaking, which is the computers we use today would have been guarded very jealously 50 years ago for reasons of national security, but now we use them for our everyday purposes. I think moving forward, the possibilities for drones are really compelling because in addition to making it inexpensive to do things, you’re also creating this environment where acting at a distance is possible and my hope would be that we’re going to see more charitable/good works come out of this, whether we’re talking about for non-governmental organizations or search and rescue, or even things like education and just enabling people to interact with groups that maybe before now we couldn’t do very easily.
For instance, to build on your discussion of the economics of it, how much money goes into these very large scale missions to help out other countries when they’re in trouble, right?
It’s massive amounts of money, it’s massive.
Yeah. I mean, I know for instance the Haitian rescue missions after the earthquakes was very expensive and didn’t really result in the money being spent very effectively. What we have with drone technology is the opportunity for, I mean, I don’t know if this is really feasible but you could see church groups or charitable groups just flying out supplies almost immediately after the disaster. You’re not going to need the same kinds of governmental or organizational infrastructure to have impact at a distance. I don’t know what the end game for that will be, but it does occur to me that smaller groups acting independently will have a larger impact because of this inexpensive technology.
Yeah. I mean, getting into what happened in Haiti, we’re starting to get into some bigger and different issues, but a lot of that speaks to the bureaucracy of large organizations, right? The Red Cross may not have been involved, so I’m not impugning the Red Cross specifically, but if you have a huge organization like the Red Cross, tons of money is just pumped into it and they’re expected to just do something. There’s all this money, it has to be spent, all these things have to happen, and in situations with big bureaucracy, a lot of people, a lot of systems, a lot of oversight, there’s a lot of spending waste.
Again, going back to the F-35 example, I mean, to get to that F-35, we say 150 million just to make the one plane, I mean, I don’t know the numbers but some massive amount of R&D and develop money to get to the point where the plane can even be made in the first place. Whenever you’re at a large scale, when you’re at a 300-400 million population country like the United States, an organization like that with a national government, anything at that scale there’s going to be inefficiencies all over the place. There’s going to be stupidity and errors and one of the things that drones allow is this very specific, very intentional, very cheap and small investment in something that can function in a more local way, in a more specific way.
Now, again, going back to Haiti, sometimes you just need boots on the ground. You can’t always just send a little buzzing drone to get the job done, but there certainly are contexts where you can, and more than that I think we just need to step back and philosophically think about these things differently. I think of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, and he said, “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” Here in the United States particularly, sort of as a continuation of enlightenment, your modernist policy of the past, we keep pursuing these hyper, bleeding edge technological solutions for things. Sometimes you just need to send a cloud of drones in the air. You don’t need the F-35. We should get a little smaller, focus a little more local, and we’ll have much better success and efficiency in the things that we’re doing, I think.
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You can follow me on Twitter, @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 193 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.