Future of Drones: Aerial Assassins or Helpful Hovercrafts?
Drones have been a popular topic of late, mostly in discussions about whether the U.S. government should be authorized to track down and kill suspected terrorists anywhere around the globe using the pilotless predators.
But what about using drones to protect elephants in Kenya from poachers, rescue skiers in France or assist farmers around the world in determining when their fields need watering?
That's how one startup, Airware, sees the future of the drone business -- less aerial assassin or Big Brother, more helpful hovercraft.
"The majority of applications are away from people and away from cities in places unlikely to interfere with air traffic or people on the ground," said Jonathan Downey, founder of the California-based company that sells its drone systems for between $4,000 and $8,000.
The global market will be key for Downey, a former engineer at Boeing, since the Federal Aviation Administration won't allow U.S. commercial sales of unmanned aircraft like his until 2015. Airware did buy some time by raising $10.7 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.
Instead of farmers or skiers, another drone maker called HexAirbot sees hobbyists and extreme-sports athletes, who want to get their snowboarding or skating tricks on camera, as its initial market. Shihong Luo, the Chinese startup's co-founder, said people in his country have even expressed interest in using his camera-equipped helicopter to patrol their houses during police raids. That would enable citizens to collect their own evidence.
Luo plans to raise money for his mini drone, which will sell for about $100, on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter next month. The crude device consists of a circuit board and four propellers shaped like the Star of David with a small camera attached to the bottom with Velcro. The gadget can stream live video wirelessly. Eventually, he wants to build a drone that can perform tasks like picking up groceries from the corner store. (We'll take that over the drone that forces you to jog faster.)
While Luo emphasized the virtues of drones, he acknowledged that like many inventions, his could be utilized by bad actors.
"Some terrorist might use this and strap a bomb to it," Luo said. "That's not our concern. We just make the hardware."
This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.