by Peter Diamandis from his book ABUNDANCE (reposted with permission)
A few years after Burt Rutan changed the paradigm for spaceflight, Chris Anderson did the same thing for unmanned air vehicles (UAV). Anderson is the editor in chief of Wired and, not surprisingly, something of a geek dad. About four years ago, he decided to spend the weekend with his kids building a LEGO Mindstorms robot and a remote control airplane. But nothing went as planned. The robots bored the kids — “Dad, where are the lasers?” — and the airplane crashed into a tree right out of the gate. While Anderson was cleaning up the wreckage, he began wondering what would happen if he used the LEGO autopilot to fly the plane. His kids thought the idea was cool — for about four hours — but Anderson was hooked. “I didn’t know anything about the subject,” he says, “but I recognized that I could buy a gyro from LEGO for $20 and turn it into an autopilot that my nine-year-old could program. That was mind blowing. Equally amazing was the fact that an autonomous flying aircraft is on the Department of Commerce’s export control restrictions list — so my nine-year-old had just weaponized LEGO.”
Curious to learn more, Anderson started a nonprofit online community called DIY Drones. In the beginning, the projects were simple, but as his community grew (currently to 17,000 members), so did their ambition. The cheapest military-grade UAV on the market is the Raven. Built by AeroVironment, this drone retails for $35,000, with the full system for $250,000. One of DIY Drones’ first major projects was an attempt to build an autonomous flying platform with 90 percent of Raven’s functionality at a radically reduced price. The members wrote and tested software, designed and tested hardware, and ended up with the QuadCopter. It was an impressive feat. In less than a year, and with almost no development costs, they created a homebrew drone with 90 percent of the Raven’s functionality for just $300 — literally 1 percent of the military’s price. Nor is this a one-off demonstration. The DIY Drones community has developed one hundred different products in the same way, each in under a year, for essentially zero development cost.
But homebrew UAVs are only the beginning. Anderson’s decision to hack his kids’ toys puts him squarely amidst the burgeoning Maker Movement. Built around a desire to tinker with the objects in our daily environment, most date the origin of this movement to 1902, when the first issue of Popular Mechanics hit the stands. By the 1950s, tinkering had become a middle-class virtue. “Fix your house, fix up an old boat, fix up an old car,” says Dale Daugherty, founder and publisher of Make magazine. “Tinkering was a way for a guy with a modest income to improve his life.”
With the advent of the computer, hacking code became more fun than hacking objects, and the movement dropped underground, resurfacing in the bedrock ethos of punk-rock culture, later a mainstay at events like Burning Man. Over the past ten years, though, a leap from software back into hardware has occurred. “These days,” says Daugherty, “there’s a hands-on imperative. People are really passionate about getting access to and control of the technology in their lives. We’re back to hacking the physical.”
And the physical has never been more hackable. Think of it this way: less than five years after Burt Rutan spent $26 million beating the aerospace giants at their own game, DIY Drones took them down with volunteer labor, a few toys, and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of spare parts. “It’s radical demonetization,” says Anderson, “a true DIY story about using open-source design to reduce costs a hundredfold while keeping ninety percent functionality.” The aerospace industry, Anderson feels, is ripe for such demonetization, and his vision should make some of the stodgier companies very nervous. “Two orders of magnitude in cost reduction was easy,” he says. “We’re now going for three.”
For exactly these reasons, the Maker Movement has serious abundance potential. Cheap drones can ferry supplies to places such as Bangladesh, where monsoons wash out roads, or to Botswana, where roads don’t exist. Matternet, a Singularity University (SU) 10^9+ company, is planning an AI-enabled network of UAVs and recharging stations housed in shipping containers scattered throughout Africa. Orders are placed via smart phone. For villages disconnected from the global transportation network, this means that everything from replacement parts for farm machinery to medical supplies can now be shipped in via an autonomous QuadCopter — for less than six cents per kilogram-kilometer.
Conservation is another possible use for low-cost autonomous platforms. Knowing how many tigers are left in Siberia is critical to developing a protection plan, but with an area of 7.5 million square miles, how do you count? A fleet of DIY drones could do the counting for us, or patrol rain forests for illegal logging, or hundreds of other suddenly affordable applications.
And UAVs are only one technology. Makers are now impacting just about every abundance-related field, from agriculture to robotics to renewable energy. Hopefully, you’ll find this inspirational. One of this book’s key messages is that anyone can take on a grand challenge. In less than five years, Chris Anderson went from knowing nothing about UAVs to revolutionizing the field. You too can start a community and make a contribution. And if software and hardware aren’t your flavors of choice, how about wetware? As we shall see in the next section, groups of high school and college students have set out to hack the very stuff of life itself and launch the DIY bio movement.
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