Americas sUSBexpo

Democratizing the Aerial Perspective

Jonathan Evans, for sUSB Expo 2014

I’ve had my eyes on the sky since I was a young boy. From the earliest moments in life, I wanted to be a pilot. I fulfilled that dream in the US Army, flying UH60 Blackhawk helicopters. After my service, I became an airline transport pilot (ATP) in airplanes, and a certified flight instructor (CFI) in both rotorcraft and airplanes. In my 17 years of flying, I’ve enjoyed awe inspiring views of our world from the aerial perspective. With drones, I see the ability to share that perspective with the world.

What the press and public have been calling a drone is actually a very sophisticated aerial robot operating at the nexus of information networks and the physical world. These robots, deployed as a network of sensors in three-dimensional, geographic space across the entire planet can offer the ability to zoom past Google Earth; to query the physical world in exquisite detail and in near real time. We can also add new depth to the information gathered; identifying and understanding change over layers of precision surveys as a temporal dimension. And this network of aerial sensors is no longer a tool for only centralized institutions; like the Internet it grows from, it’s a tool of the masses that empowers creativity and innovation.

We are just now seeing the “Apple IIe” of the technology deploy across an enthusiastic base of consumer-level early adopters.  Platforms like the DJI Phantom and 3DR Iris are putting aerial sensors in their hands at an approachable cost of under $1,000. And to begin to act truly as a common network of sensors; there are companies like Airware, Drone Deploy, and SkyCatch building architectures that provide the scaffolding on which that network will grow.

Aerial robotics is a rapidly evolving technology. The productivity per cost is increasing at accelerating rates.  Within ten years, aerial robots will be as common to our infrastructure as the smartphone. By then, we should also be seeing what I consider the second wave of the technology; a physical network of aerial robots moving things across the planet.’s Jeff Bezos recently laid this out, and in so doing, helped normalize the technology for the public imagination. While getting the pretty things we buy online much faster to our doorstep will certainly be nice, perhaps a more inspired view of moving things across the planet can be seen in Matternet’s elegant vision.

What I see coming next, and what we’re working on at RTI here in Portland under the Silicon Sky, is a set of compliant network standards that harmonize aviation regulations into a digital architecture. We’re working with commercial operators around the world to bake compliance into an elegant, cloud-based workflow system that offers them access to this enormous emerging market for aerial data and imagery. We, too, are building some of the scaffolding on which this network will grow, and hope to usher in an era of Aviation Regulations 2.0. Soon, drones will be able to operate as safely as packets of information on the Internet. And sharing those views I’ve fallen in love with from the flight deck, sharing in the deep knowledge found in the aerial perspective, will empower a new era of understanding for the world we live in.


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