If You're Droning on About Drones, You're Missing the Point


The debate over false and fake news continues, as it has for millennia. It will no doubt flare up as the means of information distribution get ever more efficient. And who knows? One day the Pinocchio effect might actually be realized, as embedded chips in our brains cause physical changes to our bodies if we fib...

Yet the spread of DIGIBABBLE, which is not false news, but rather skewed reporting, continues unabated and frankly, in my view, limits our true understanding of the amazing advances being made in the world where technology is actually changing people's lives, as opposed to "disrupting" shopping.

What set me off this week was the widely reported story of Amazon's first actual drone delivery of goods to a customer. The Wall Street Journal reported:

Amazon last week made its first customer delivery by drone, carrying a package containing popcorn and a Fire TV video-streaming device several miles to a two-story farmhouse near Cambridge, U.K., in 13 minutes...

The delivery marks the start of operations for Amazon's drone program after three years of skepticism and regulatory hurdles. Prime Air, as the initiative is known, aims to get packages to customers within 30 minutes...

Drones are just a part of the online retailer's long-term plan to develop its own transportation network to control more of its deliveries and one day compete with UPS and FedEx Corp., according to people familiar with the matter.

All of which fits nicely with Jeff Bezos' interview on CBS's 60 Minutes in late 2013, in which he said 86 percent of the orders the online retailer ships weigh less than 5 pounds. That's lightweight enough to be delivered by drone.

So now drones join ocean freighters, jetliners, trucks, cars, bicycles, stores and people in Amazon's arsenal of delivery, giving them control of air, land, sea and point of origin to point of usage.

All amazing and inspirational, truly...but....

Single-item drone delivery is a great story for investors and stock prices. I find it almost absurd that in the rush to gush there is no questioning of pricing, logistics, staffing needs and on and on.

Also no thought as to how do you, as the buyer, collect your goods.... setting up a little landing site right before they're delivered is so WWII English-French spy network...n'est-ce pas ?:

Clearly there is an argument and a good one to be made for unfettered creativity and development, and I could not agree more!

In fact, I am inspired. My mind is reeling with the potential for drone use and more not just the potential, but the amazing things we can learn and be inspired by...none of which are "disruptive" but rather are changing the world.

To be clear, a day doesn't go by when we don't hear about drones delivering death from afar, without endangering the sender. We all know that telltale movie cue when the bad guy looks up:

Like many innovations, military needs speed up technology, but true human advancement is to take that need and #changetheworld.

A number of years ago at the Kinnernet unconference, I heard a military drone expert talk about his vision...not of enhanced mayhem but of commercial possibilities.

He believed that one day all commercial planes will be flown by pilots sitting comfortably in remote locations, well rested, frequently relieved, using the most advanced technology, which when taken into aggregate consideration will make flying safer than ever before as it will reduce the human factor. NB - I just watched the movie Sully and I have met Captain Sullenberger and listened to his personal telling of the amazing landing in the Hudson - sometimes the human factor is what makes the difference - give me Sully any day.

But again, that is in the future - but why not? Driverless cars are here...no?

Yet, as I started by saying, we are sadly shortchanging what is really happening in the world and I'm more inspired by what is in this instance than by what might or not be.

So allow me to share some examples courtesy of Consumer Reports and I hope that you get inspired, too:


...Farmers have discovered that drones are very useful for monitoring the health of their fields. "It would cost me a couple hundred dollars an hour for a plane or helicopter," says fourth-generation grain and apple farmer Jeff VanderWerff. "With my [DJI] Phantom 3 drone, a device I paid $1,200 for, I can fly it every day."

...Aerial imagery from a drone equipped with an NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) camera could help him accurately estimate the yield of a crop in July, rather than waiting until harvest in October. With special software he could analyze that imagery, spotting crops beset by diseases, weeds, and flooding while there's still time to save them. And he could then use the drone to efficiently apply fertilizers and pesticides...

Humanitarian Aid

Some 1.3 billion to 2.1 billion people on the planet don't have access to essential medicines, the World Health Organization says, often because they live in hard-to-reach places. To address that concern, California drone maker Zipline signed a deal with the government of Rwanda last February to shuttle supplies to remote areas on demand...

"We are already delivering more than 40 percent of the transfusions for the entire country," says Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo. "These are cases where, if bad roads or lack of supply prevents deliveries, people die."...

First Responders

In February 2015, the Michigan State Police received FAA approval to fly a SkyRanger quadcopter made by Canada's Aeryon Labs for public safety efforts. A week later, troopers used it to investigate a suspicious fire in Jenison. According to Aeryon CEO David Kroetsch, the craft can also be used to conduct search-and-rescue operations, gather aerial intelligence for SWAT teams, and even map accident scenes. That last task usually involves an officer on foot measuring the crash site and sketching the details on graph paper--a system ripe for inaccuracy, given the time constraints. With a drone and a laptop, he can instead stitch together a series of geotagged photos and even film fly-throughs to determine what drivers might have seen in the moments before impact. "That's evidence-grade data," Kroetsch says, "and it can be done in 15 minutes." By completing the mapping quickly, officers can reduce the length of lane closures on busy highways, potentially sparing hundreds of thousands of dollars in tolls for a state, he says.

Better yet, aerial footage provided by drones keeps early responders out of harm's way. In a SWAT scenario, for example, a camera-equipped craft with a powerful 30x zoom lens can give officers a close-up look at a compound where hostages are being held--while they remain 1,000 feet away. And, likewise, a fireman can fly a drone with thermal-imaging and video-streaming capability over a four-alarm blaze and determine, in real time, where to direct his colleagues and where to help them avoid trouble...

Safety Inspections

Drones are exceedingly effective at finding structural flaws, not only because they can quickly and efficiently take high-resolution images and laser scans but also because they can get up close in treacherous spaces, such as the underside of an offshore drilling rig or the top of a cell tower.

Boeing's drone-making subsidiary Insitu is working with BNSF Railway to test rail-inspection possibilities in New Mexico. "If there was a lot of rain overnight," says Jon Damush, the company's vice president and general manager, "we could send an unmanned sentry out before the first train of the day and see if there was a washout."


"Let's say a hailstorm rolls through Texas and damages 2,000 roofs in its wake," says Dan Burton, founder of DroneBase, an Uber-like service that connects businesses with independent drone pilots. "We could go take some pictures and then say, 'Based on the damage to this roof, there's a 98 percent chance you will pay a claim. On this other one, it's 80 percent.'"

With that in mind, most of the major insurance companies are now experimenting with drones, some by hiring outside contractors, others by sending out aircraft of their own. If you're a claims adjuster, it saves you time and money, and reduces the risks of climbing ladders and walking on damaged roofs. But if you're the customer, that might not translate to lower insurance premiums...

Internet Access

Well over half the planet's population--some 4 billion people--currently has no internet access. A full 1.6 billion live in areas too remote for mobile broadband. That means no Facebook, of course, but also no email, no world news, no information and instruction from YouTube, and no access to online commerce. And without a huge investment in satellites and cell towers, that's mighty difficult to change.

Google has floated a plan to fix the problem by relaying internet signals via a network of giant, high-altitude balloons, but the company is also reportedly looking into drones as a solution. Facebook is headed that way, too.

In the latter company's vision, a series of lightweight drones with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 will cruise high above normal airspace delivering connectivity to people within a 60-mile radius. Powered by batteries and solar energy, they will remain aloft for three months at a time. The company can't say when the project will be operational--"significant advancements in science and technology will be needed," a spokesperson says--but last June a full-scale prototype (shown at the top of this article) made a successful test flight of more than 90 minutes over southern Arizona...

Hurricane and Tornado Forecasting

In the future, when a severe tropical storm approaches Florida, as Hurricane Matthew did last October, autonomous aircraft developed by defense contractor Raytheon Missile Systems could fly right up to the maelstrom to take measurements for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Originally created for anti-submarine warfare, the small, fixed-wing crafts known as Coyotes launch from the bottom of hurricane hunter planes, which often fly in the upper reaches of a storm, often more than 10,000 feet in the air. The Coyotes can, by contrast, maneuver around at 500 feet--right at the dangerous boundaries of the storm, where the most dramatic atmospheric changes occur...

Wildlife Conservation

In recent years, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts have used drones to monitor the health of humpback whales off the coast of Cape Cod, even capturing from their blowholes breath samples flush with DNA that can be analyzed for wildlife studies. The U.S. Geological Survey has also dispatched them to observe sandhill cranes in Colorado. But to date, the tech's most profound contribution to wildlife protection might be unfolding in Africa, where drones are policing vast tracts of land to catch poachers hunting rhinos and elephants. The horns and tusks of those animals can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars from Asian crime syndicates...

Some more inspiration if you still think disruption is about delivering toothpaste. From The Guardian:

"Rwanda is essentially a rural country. Lots of blood products cannot be stocked at every health centre. At best it can take four to six hours to get supplies through," says the technology minister, Jean Philbert Nsengimana...

Enter Zipline, a California-based robotics company which has designed a fixed-wing drone to deliver medical essentials to rural health facilities. The "zip" - with a two-metre wingspan - releases a small, parachute-equipped payload that drifts down into a dropzone without the zip having to land...

In its first phase, Zipline plans to make 50 to 150 deliveries of blood a day to 21 transfusing facilities within a 47-mile (75km) radius, later adding vaccines and other urgent supplies. Each zip, operating from bases called nests housing 15 autonomous devices, can fly a 75-mile round-trip on a single battery charge, including in wind and rain.

And UNICEF and others are beginning to use drones in other innovative ways to save lives:

Drones are being tested in other emerging economies. Matternet, another Silicon Valley startup, has run pilots moving samples from rural clinics to a laboratory in Papua New Guinea and is launching a small medical delivery network in Dominican Republic. The company is also working with Unicef in Malawi to develop a project using UAVs to carry blood samples from infants born to HIV-positive parents, underscoring the physical and geographical challenges that are present across much of the continent.

And a host of other actual projects and applications some already standard in their areas of operation:

The Construction Industry Is in Love with Drones (Fortune, Sept. 13, 2014)

Walt Disney World announces its first drone light show (MarketWatch, Nov. 7, 2016)

GE Drones Are Coming to Squeeze More Savings From the Oil Patch (Bloomberg, Oct. 5, 2016)

Allstate Just Used Drones to Inspect Homes in Texas (Fortune, Sept. 2, 2016)

Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage (MIT Technology Review, May 2014)

And even companies like Measure, which "operates turnkey drone solutions to deliver cost-effective actionable data to enterprise customers."

Of course the DIGIBABBLE irony is that while drones are actually being used commercially in so many different ways, as I have tried to show package delivery is ways away. From The Wall Street Journal, "Package-Delivery Drones Likely Years Away From Federal Approval."

And there you have it.

If you think that the future of the world is dependent on Prime Air delivering you popcorn...sorry I wasted your time.

But if you believe, like I do, that drones are already making an impact and can do way more follow some of these initiatives and fight back against DIGIBABBLE...#changetheworld...listen:

"We need to embark on a human revolution. A revolution where our reality is not replaced by drones but augmented by technology to do better." - Vishal Sikka

So, my dear readers, PEOPLE FIRST...with drones to help...and your popcorn will just have to wait...

What do you think?

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