Did you see the Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes interview with Amazon.com founder and Chairman Jeff Bezos on December 1st? Interesting topics included the company’s growth and its stock price, Bezos’ business philosophy and strategy, and Amazon’s impact on competitors’ businesses, both at the mall and online. But what might have been the most intriguing part was the “big reveal” at the end of the segment. Amazon is working on a 30-minute delivery service that might deploy thousands of automated quad copters. Bezos showed Rose a video of one of these hover craft-like drones gently floating into the camera shot. Looking slightly menacing, like a Transformer toy with talon-like grippers clutching an Amazon package under its frame, and suspended by four vertical propellers whirling and whirring softly, the aircraft maneuvered first to the left, than slowly, safely, lowered itself to the ground in front of the doorstep of an Amazon customer’s house. On touchdown the animatron opened its grippers to release its payload onto the sidewalk. Just as quickly as it appeared, it stealthily levitated straight above its landing pad then zigged sharply right and zagged back from where it came, across the sky like a bot on reconnaissance heading home to the mother ship. This is no pipe dream, I told my wife. And Amazon isn’t alone. Soon, I said, the skies will be filled with drones on a mission.
Why am I so sure? Because I don’t believe in coincidences. Early that very same December 1st morning my neighbor and I set out on our bikes and headed south down Pacific Coast Highway on our way to Pigeon Point Lighthouse where we planned to rest for a few minutes and re-energize before turning around and riding back home. From the parking lot at the Point we walked our bikes to a couple of picnic tables, one of which was covered with cameras, electronics, and a weird-looking miniature airplane. I know now it wasn’t a weird plane, it was a quad copter, just like the one I would see on 60 Minutes later that night. The guy with all the gear, we learned, is a software engineer from the Silicon Valley. “I’m about to take it for a spin around Pigeon Point Lighthouse,” he told us, referring to his TBS Discovery Pro quad copter. Up till he strapped on the FPV goggles and commenced liftoff, he patiently answered all of our questions about range, power, battery life, accuracy, the transmission signal, video quality, and cost. His rig is top of the line for a hobbyist, so the $3,000 – $4,000 price tag isn’t something most can afford. But, he told us, entry level quads and controllers without cameras, video feeds, gimbals to shift the camera angle, first-person vision goggles, GPS, and homing devices can be had for well under $1,000.
If you can, set your YouTube resolution for HD and watch the stunningly beautiful video that this hobbyist created right then and there, using only the joy stick and goggles to orchestrate the drone’s graceful glides and pirouettes that left us in awe, like kids watching a magic show. We watched and wondered where and how this technology might be used, outside of Yemen and Afghanistan. By surveyors, police searching for a criminal, cleaners in hard to reach places, camera crews at sporting events, rescue teams needing to get a lifeline to a stranded victim, or by home video enthusiasts? Drones competing with UPS and FedEx didn’t occur to us. But surely, I thought, there are plenty of applications waiting to be discovered in manufacturing. Waving at the 4:15 point of the video and applauding at the end, my neighbor and I are the guys wearing bike helmets. What were we waving at? The future – heading right at us, just slightly beyond our grasp.