VLAB: Drones – the commercial era takes off, but breaking the law is going to blow-up in our faces

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending VLAB: Drones – The Commercial Era Takes Off at Stanford GSB.   The event was truly fantastic and the panel was amazing.  The moderator was Chris Anderson, former editor at Wired and CEO of 3D robotics.  I’m really struck by how much he has become the face of the commercial drone industry.  From his appearances on NPR and print media, he’s probably the most recognized drone advocate.  He makes some very powerful points.  Fueled by Moore’s Law and the cellphone industry supply chain, unmanned aircraft technology is coming and we’ve got to prepare for it.  Like it or not, the drone/robotic era is coming–it doesn’t have to be scary–all kinds of things are possible.

VLAB Drones Panel at Stanford GSB March 19th, 2013

VLAB Drones Panel from left to right: Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics; Helen Greiner, Cyphy Works; Zach Schildhorn, Lux Capital; Jonathan Downey, Airware; Matthew Pobloske, BAE

The one theme that deserves the attention of our industry at large, promoted by Chris Anderson, was that many people in our industry are operating in a “legal gray area” (read: violating regulations because they think the regulations are stupid and won’t be enforced) and that operating in the “gray area” is a good thing that will force regulatory movement.  Anderson gave two examples of this “gray area.” He talked about how ridiculous it was to be violating export controls by turning Lego Mindstorms into what could be considered a cruise missile guidance system.  Later he talked about flying drones in contravention to the FAA regulations governing the use of unmanned aircraft.

The FAA regulations are pretty clear, and let’s stipulate that they are stupid.  However they are the rules, and they have worked pretty well for the FAA’s primary goal of keeping people from getting killed by aircraft.  Technologists in general and Silicon Valley in particular take a dim view of regulations promulgated under the old order (e.g. Lyft, Uber, AirBnB).  I’m not completely outraged when technologists facilitate contract formation between consenting adults, even if local regulation contravene some of the particulars of the contracts.  However, let’s be clear that is absolutely not what we’re talking about when it comes to aircraft.

When it comes to aircraft–manned or unmanned–one of the main beneficiaries of regulation is the people on the ground.  This isn’t renting your room to some strangers who choose to be there; it is hurtling a heavy object over the heads of people who haven’t consented to be part of an experiment.  Our society rightly asks the government to ensure that activities that impose risk on others, especially those that did not consent, be minimized.  We need to update our regulations, but aircraft operators need to respect the letter and spirit of the law as it stands.  What standards do we have if not the law?   If we follow the path of breaking all the rules, someone is going to accidentally kill a  sympathetic bystander.  Beyond the personal tragedy that will create, that accident will set back our industry and the benefits we can provide to society by a decade.

In Afghanistan, one of my planes almost smacked into a helicopter–but it was the helicopter, not the drone–who had come, without clearance or radio calls, into an active artillery firing ROZ (restricted operating zone–an airspace control measure to make sure that aircraft don’t run into artillery fire).  Similarly, the first full sized drone and manned aircraft collision had the C-130 violating airspace control measures around the airfield.  Pilots are not infallible and often break the rules.   The best drone operators have a different safety culture.  Military drone safety culture is one where there is proper approval for everything, because every move will be recorded and second guessed.  I hope this culture will permeate the civilian unmanned aircraft community as well.

Although breaking the rules might move us toward our unmanned enabled future a little bit faster, this is an incredibly dangerous path for our industry and our bystanders.  The closing thought of VLAB Drones was that unmanned aircraft will eventually make the airspace safer for all users.  The panel wondered if this was hyperbole, but it is inevitable when drones have a strong safety culture.  Conversely, as long as we are the irresponsible jerks of the air, safety conscious regulators–like the FAA –will be unsupportive of us flying.    When we, as a civilian unmanned aircraft industry, can be counted on as strong safety partner, and when general aviation and commercial aviation are learning safety lessons from us, there will be no more foot dragging.  We will get our airspace and the drone revolution will finally be here.

In the meantime, seriously, don’t do anything that could kill anyone, please–especially if it is illegal.  You will ruin it for the rest 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!