Drones, Robots, and Flying Cars (Finally!)
Welcome to the third and final installment of this blog series about the WIRED25 festival last year. This series has been my reflections as an Agile coach and Technologist on that event, which happened in October in San Francisco. The event was part retrospective and part vision of the future. Part 1 was all about big tech giants like Google and Blue Origin and their visions of the future (read: spaceships). Part 2 focused on social media powerhouses, such as Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, who promised to leverage AI to make our online experiences better. I delved into the true agility of these companies as exhibited by their relentless pivoting and striving to be more valuable to their customers, which has gotten more difficult, not less, as time has gone on.
And now Part 3. I’ve saved the best for last – drones, robots and flying cars (finally).
Let’s start with Zipline’s humanitarian drones.
Drones for Life
These photos (right) tell the story. On the left, we see how a car delivery of medicine to a village in Africa has gone wrong (how could it not?). In the end, they barely get the delivery there in time. Today’s innovation is on the right: the Zipline solution – autonomous drones that deliver medicine within minutes.
Zipline employs specially designed drones to deliver blood in remote regions of Africa in minutes rather than days. Interestingly, these drones make the round-trip journey autonomously. The worker puts the blood into the drone from a centralized hospital, scans the barcode which tells the drone which field hospital to go to, and they launch it from a catapult-like device.
Zipline CEO, Keller Rinaudo, was emphatic in saying that his business was first a real business, not “merely” a social good. He assured us that the company’s is a viable business model based on making logistics easier, one that could compete some day with big players such as UPS and FedEx. Importantly, the business model includes local jobs, which increase adoption and acceptance where they’re used. You can check out their video gallery here.
The biggest surprise to me this entire festival was the flying cars. I had given up on any Jetson-esque future promises a long time ago, but that was before Kitty Hawk, a company with Sebastian Thrun at the helm. Thrun believes that “2D travel” – ground-based transportation – will never solve the problem of urban traffic: “…as long as they’re stuck in two-dimensions building enough paths is impossible. If there is a lot of traffic for flying cars, it is effortless to bump up cars to another level.”
Mr. Thrun was so excited about it, he wouldn’t talk much about the specifics, at least not while sitting next to Sam Altman, of the VC investment house Y Combinator, but there is a prototype that he flew himself.
Meet Knightscope, easily the most intimidating of the robots I met. This in-production bot patrols malls and such, in California mostly. It’s kinda like a Roomba vacuum with cameras and security features. I saw the control screen for this bot and let me say – it sees everything. The person I spoke to at the Robot Petting Zoo (more below) talked about working on making the robot more autonomous and seen more as a resource than a threat by the public. This made me wonder – is there something inherent in humans that freaks us out about robots? Is it too much science fiction? The fear that Frankenstein stirs in us – the fear that our own creations will rise up and destroy us – seems to run deep.
In stark contrast to the Knightscope, we have Pepper (standing next to my son, Ryan). This was easily the cutest robot there and with the best personality. This in-production bot had responsive voice integration despite a noisy environment, and responded vocally as well, with accompanying hand gestures and some meaningful light changes (e.g., green means it understood you). The bot would track your face as you spoke to it and even gave me a high five when requested. The presenter said Pepper was used for welcoming customers and providing visitors information in stores such as Microsoft.
I had the privilege of going to the office of Marble, the creator of the third little bot. This fellow is intended to be the “last mile” delivery service, say groceries or meals, that are around you for less money and labor than other “human-based” delivery services such as Uber eats. I thought it was interesting that these bots can move on sidewalks to avoid traffic and are battery-powered, meaning fewer emissions. They’re targeting local service delivery to those who might have challenges getting out of their homes to run errands, for example, single moms, those without transportation, and the elderly. One of my favorite parts of my visit to Marble was being at source of the innovation, where these robots are built. I saw soldering stations, circuit boards, wheels, servos, and Nerf-gun darts laying about. It gave me the feeling of being part of one of these startups, reminding me of college days getting my Electrical Engineering degree, where I was burning my skin off with a soldering iron.
And finally, not all robots are on wheels. This little fellow, named Hexa, is from China, and could climb over barriers and was about the size of my hand, which is impressive miniaturization. They say that Hexa could help deliver goods and services in areas with poorer terrain.
However, the most impressive bot overall, has to be the four-legged SpotMini, by the famous Boston Dynamics.
CEO Marc Raibert and some of his technicians took their robot out into the street right outside WIRED headquarters, showing us their confidence in the product. This is one of their first offerings that you can actually purchase, starting in 2019. SpotMini is customizable and can be fitted by the customer with different connections, arms, or cameras, or whatever. SpotMini was controlled by a person nearby during this demo, using a PC and an Xbox controller, which onlookers were also allowed to try.
Conversely, owners will be able to programmatically instruct the bot to run around on its own. The machine is surprisingly quiet, weighs only 66 pounds, and is all electric. They showed one demo of it taking photos of an enormous sky scraper autonomously for an architecture firm inspection. Even more impressive was SpotMini’s dance moves. That’s right, it dances! Make your day by watching that here.
As I scrolled through my bevy of photographs, this one stuck out.
The kids showed so much interest and fascination, and what I could only think of as a cautious joy. The question on this young one’s face was, “Can I trust this thing? I want to play, but is it safe?” Which summed up how I was feeling about this near future I was staring at.
This little girl is going to be the generation that has to create and define how we use robots. It was almost as if she were confronting her future – and ours. There are many things that went down in this conference that I’ll sprinkle into future writings. Those of us in tech would benefit from these sorts of conferences since it brings the future with it. Those who are placing time and capital at risk to move the human race another step forward.
My overall take away is that there is a lot to look forward to. I left the conference optimistic for the future and what tech can do for us, if we are intentional with it, in our lives. Delivering medicine by drones or by robots to alleviating traffic through personal air travel, things will get better.
Thanks for reading!