Since Buddy Minchini was little he has dreamed about flying. But the 29 year-old Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of Silicon Valley drone maker Airware, backed by a 40 million dollar investment from Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins and Google, never pictured himself in an airplane. He was more interested in the work of engineers on the ground, he told me in an interview. “It’s always the engineer who is responsible for the success of a flight, not the pilot alone.”
Well, not any more. It’s also public opinion. As it happens these days, the public tends to be skeptical or even opposed towards new digital phenomena. You can recognize this attitude (let’s call it “technophobia”) more or less towards every second Silicon Valley company with a new business model, a new device or a new approach to change our ways of life.
Don’t take me wrong. I do not believe that “new is always better”. This rule, coined by Barney Stinson of “How I met your mother”-fame, doesn’t make any sense here. Nothing is better just because it is new. We all have to be aware of a new technology’s possible disadvantages or risks. But when it comes to drones people seem to forget everything they ever learned from playbooks, pardon, Immanuel Kant or the enlightenment: Use your head!
For most of them it’s less “How I met a new technology” but rather “How I met my technophobia”. They tend to think we can’t stop small flying vehicles, once we let them “out of the cage”, as seen in every second science fiction thriller or detailed in Daniel Suarez’ novel “Kill Decision”.
No doubt – Suarez’ story about a month-long fight against an autonomous drone army trying to destroy human civilization is a great read. The only problem: As of today, most drones could not wage a month-long war to destroy mankind – just think about batteries.
Drone companies like Airware have a whole range of problems to solve. It will take “a while longer” for a drone to navigate fully autonomously, Airware engineer Buddy Minchini says. The industry has just started to work on the basics – Buddy and his friend Jonathan Downey are building an operating system, for example.
According to new guidelines by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which are more liberal than expected, companies are allowed to use drones for agriculture or the surveillance of industrial facilities, among other things. Airware for example partners with General Electric. The industrial giant uses drones to inspect transmission towers.
Some say Amazon’s dream about a drone delivery service is dead now. I say the new guidelines are just the first step. Certainly, the use of drones must be regulated. Companies have to minimize the risk of accidents like the recent one where a drone crashed into the White House garden. And of course aerial drones and their tireless cameras raise questions of privacy. These questions must be answered.
“It will take a while until people start to trust this new technology”, says Andreas Raptopoulos, founder of Matternet, a drone company I visited in Menlo Park. Most people were just thinking about military drones, he says.
I think he is right. There is still a long way to go. But it has always been the principal duty of pioneers to show other people the way – be it man’s emergence from his “self-imposed immaturity” or just how to have an amazing evening with friends.
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Britta Weddeling is Handelsblatt's correspondent in Silicon Valley covering the internet economy, latest trends and small curiosities in the valley of the nerds.