Do you know anyone thinking about the future of aviation?

If you do, please make an introduction for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of aviation lately.  I’m trying to write a major piece for Patrick Egan at sUAS News and also thinking about this for reasons related to my business.  I’m not sure that we in the unmanned aviation community have done enough to think about what the future of the aviation industry is like.  Clayton Christensen’s Seeing What’s Next has a great discussion of disruption in aviation, but even though it was written in 2004, it makes nary a mention of unmanned aircraft.  Steve Morris at MLB Company also was kind enough to have lunch with me last week and talk about what he sees coming.

Photo Credit: DARPA /

Hypothesized Developments in Aviation from Unmanned Aircraft:

-Aircraft building, particularly on the low end will approach a commodity industry more analogous to PCs or cellphones than current aircraft building paradigms.

-Unmanned aircraft companies (both builders and operators) are going to look more like software or networking companies than they are going to look like industrial companies, this has implications for both human resource practices and the capital structure of the companies.

-Scheduling, routing, and planning will be done according to the new paradigm.  Currently in aviation, everything is optimized around getting the most out of any particular flight hour or unit of plane time.  Unmanned flips this on its head and allows for the aircraft to be treated like other tools that wait on the main job.  Don’t know when you’ll need the plane up?  That’s okay, we’ll park it in the sky (maybe doing a lower value mission) until you need it.  Want to go from point A to B?  Great we’ll take you there, directly, when you want to go.  We will not worry about crew duty cycles, hubs, or returning the plane to its home base.

-Large airports will loose their centrality to the system–this is not to say they will experience a decline in traffic, but rather, they will not be the key limits on a network-like system of small airfields and ad hoc landing or operating sites (think more like a heliport than an airport).

Predicted Market Effects:

-Differentiation and customization will likely become the norm in unmanned aircraft operations.  Most airlines are pretty undifferentiated, but when the business customer is going to tie their ERP system to their aerial service provider’s dispatch system and automatically task aerial missions based on orders, sustained relationships and differentiated services are going to be much more meaningful.

-Data gathering / reconnaissance is likely to switch almost entirely to unmanned systems after the FAA changes the rules.

-Air Cargo is going to be significantly changed, mostly at the interface between trucking and air, with more work being done by air and less by trucking.

-In the long run personalized aviation, whether that is passenger aviation or other types of aviation consumption is going to be the big development.  Aircraft of today are like mainframes of the 70’s.  Only anointed experts who get to go into the restricted area can operate these machines.  Unmanned aircraft are going to be like PC’s, so cheap and easy to use that anyone can have one.  The possibilities here are quite remarkable.  Data collection, aerial work, cargo, and passenger transport are likely to feel the effects of this shift.

-Long haul, passenger, mass transportation will be the last segment to be effected.  The first segments to be effected will be small, light-weight, short duration applications.

So what else?  

I don’t really have a clear idea of how this effects incumbents.  It will definitely be change.  On the one hand, I think that the big guys at the top of the market will be fine.  I don’t expect Boeing or the airlines to disappear.  On the other hand, I don’t think that axis will have the control over aviation that they do today.  They will be more like bus companies and builders in the large automotive industry.

The cult of the pilot will be diminished (as it already is in military aviation) and air travel will continue to be democratized.  I believe that we are witnessing something akin to the introduction of the automobile.  Prior to the automobile, mechanized transportation had been too expensive and hard to use for anyone that was not an expert.  Prior to aerial automation, aircraft were too expensive and hard to use for anyone but an expert.  That’s changing, if we can hurry up the FAA, we have an amazing industrial explosion ahead of us.

“Ask me anything: The answer is a robot! …I’m a roboticist.” -Dr. Rodney Brooks

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending Rodney Brooks’ first public talk on the Baxter robot, “A New Class of Industrial Robots.”  Although, there wasn’t a great deal of new technical information available beyond what the barrage of press exclusives has already announced, it was a fascinating look at the thought process that went into building the Baxter.  I’ll attempt to share some of the ideas that he shared at Carnegie Mellon to best of my deficient note taking abilities.  You can can also watch the video here.

My general impression is that the Baxter is a real product.  That’s really exciting to see in robotics!  We don’t get true products all that often.  I mean this robot can be used by people who cannot code and don’t know how to do math.  You can use a Baxter at a basic level just by pressing some buttons and moving the Baxter’s arms.  A ‘power user’ might use the menu system to enable (or more likely disable) features that make the Baxter so easy to use.  A forthcoming software development kit will let the robotics engineers tinker if they like.  The overall impression I got however is that the Baxter is a not a fundamental breakthrough so much as a breakthrough product.  It is designed around a specific set of user needs, responds to their preferences, and doesn’t attempt to do everything.  I could see how it might delight people who need a box packed or something sorted.

Another interesting aspect of the Baxter is how it takes an alternative design approach to current industrial robots.  The Baxter focuses on tasks that have some degree of compliance.  Most industrial robots are focused on precision.  It will be interesting to see how these two classes of robots end up interacting, competing, and complementing one another.

ReThink has an ambition to bring back a lot of manufacturing value to the United States.  The idea that much of the drudgery in a factory can be completed at an all in cost of $3/hr definitely puts the economic rationale for taking production offshore into question.  We all know that there are tremendous efficiencies achieve from having production close the large markets and design centers, this will make it possible to further substitute capital for the lowest skill labor and create many more valuable manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“Advanced Manufacturing doesn’t mean manufacturing advanced stuff.”  Dr. Brooks pointed out that although employment in manufacturing has remained stable or declined over the last several decades, the output of American manufacturing has been on a nearly uninterrupted increase.  This has been driven, in part, by a march up the value chain into business to business and complex products.  Dr. Brooks hope that the Baxter will let us look at having

Why isn’t Baxter mobile?  First, Baxter doesn’t need to be mobile to fulfill its intended function and adding mobility probably would add cost and complexity that the customers don’t require.  Baxter can be moved on casters easily by a worker, but it doesn’t need to move on its own for most applications.  Second, Dr. Brooks’ non-compete agreement with iRobot prevented him from working on mobile robotics until recently.  Maybe, we’ll see a mobile Baxter soon.

Finally, I’m really curious to see how the end effector strategy plays out.  ReThink  is going to publish an interface that includes mechanical, electrical, and software specifications.  Currently they provide an end effector that appears to be only a two finger gripper that can be customized for size to some degree.  I’m curious if there will be a lot of end effectors that come out and to what extent the Baxter and ROS become a platform for further innovation in robotics.

The Baxter was designed in conscious analogy to the PC.  Will it usher in a new age of robotics the way the PC did?  From a business perspective will Baxter-type platforms become commoditized and can ReThink retain its edge?   Dr. Brooks was refreshingly humble about the future, but it was clear that he is optimistic and willing to learn more from the market for this disruptive product.

If you’re going to RoboBusiness have fun at the public unveiling of the robot!

We need horizontal migration for robotics

Despite the tremendous potential for robotics to transform people’s lives, robotics is not nearly as widespread as information technology.   Traditionally this has been ascribed to the high capital costs of starting a robotics company, but this explanation does not bear scrutiny[i].  More realistic explanations for the lack of proliferation of robotics are that management in most robotics companies cannot effectively match customer development and product development cycles, and robotic solutions are not easily ported from one industry to another.

The lack of synchronization between product and customer development leads to a much slower and more expensive development cycle than in software based businesses. This is not an inherent problem of robotics, but a product of the management practices employed in robotics versus software businesses.  Better management is already leading to falling iteration cycle times.  Many of the leading robotics firms on the West Coast have cycle times that are within a factor of 2 or 3 of software best practice.

The more fundamental problem in robotics is that robotic solutions are not easily ported from one industry to another.  Solutions tend not to be universal but rather quite tailored to specific industries.  As a result, successful robotics firms tend to think of themselves as serving specific industries and being participants in that industry rather than having a core technological competence.

Take the example of Automated Healthcare, one of the first substantial out-of-factory robotics acquisitions.  In the 1990s, it developed a solution for automating pharmacy operations at hospitals to reduce labor and more importantly theft and errors in the pharmacy.  Although, their solutions was loosely based on handling of computer tape media, they did not view themselves as a material handling and storage provider, they came to view themselves as providers of drug distribution solutions—while this is certainly a valid business direction—the acquisition by McKesson ensured that their great success in drug distribution would likely stay in that industry.  I’m not suggesting that McKesson took a technology that was ready to jump industries and didn’t take it across industries.  However, once a technology finds a home in a giant healthcare company it is going to developed to serve the interests of the parent company, not the interests of the robotics community at large.

Contrast this with solution providers for information technology.  Ten years prior to the start of Automated Healthcare, Oracle was being started as a relational database company.  Oracle did not stay fixed on any particular industrial niche, but rather became a database solutions provider to practically every industry that uses databases.  This portability allowed Oracle to grow to a thousand times the size of Automated Healthcare, even though material handling probably generates as much revenue as do relational databases.   The sad part is that the acquisition of Kiva Systems by Amazon indicates that this trend robotics material handling solutions being aligned to particular industries is likely to continue.

ReThink’s Baxter may point at a broadening of robotics to serve several sub-segments of manufacturing.  I hope that Baxter can also become the mail clerk in an office and serve lunch in the cafeteria.  Once we get to that point, our industry will really start to take off.  My suspicion is that there are enabling technologies and infrastructure that we haven’t developed yet to do this.  A truly universal dispatching system and some other key enabling technologies are likely to have to fall in place before this happens.  I hope to devote a future post to what those key enabling technologies and infrastructure pieces are.

Guess that’s not happening…

So I wonder how the EADS shareholders feel about taking a hit for a merger that never happened.  Oddly enough, it seems like the German government is actually looking out for shareholders in blocking the deal.  Most analysts couldn’t figure out why they were trying to do this.   EADS / Airbus does well enough on its own when not making blunders like the A380.  BAE does well on its own because it has access to the U.S. defense market in a way that a partially government owned continental firm would never have (see: tanker competition; see also: special alliance).  I’m still puzzled by the logic of this.

There are great mergers out there in our field.  Pittsburgh robotics firm RedZone has gone on acquisition kick and bought up companies that provide software and solutions for larger diameter pipes to build a complete sewer solution.  iRobot has bought Evolution Robotics when it seems like someone else’s mousetrap had some cool features.  Both of these create value for the company and have clear economic rationales underlying them.

Let’s hope that robotics can keep our business combinations on the path to having economic rationale.