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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 3, 2014 at 11:58 AM

Droneapalooza: Tech giants’ aerial combat

Google’s timing could have been better when it revealed last week — just before Labor Day — that it’s been secretly developing delivery drones that may someday drop packages out of the sky.

Amazon image of a "Prime Air" prototype.

Amazon image of a “Prime Air” prototype.

The federal holiday was created as an olive branch to workers after a deadly strike affecting railroads, the cutting edge, networked delivery system of the 19th century.

That infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution was built by immensely powerful, politically connected railroad barons, similar to the way tech giants such as Google have been laying digital tracks and information depots across the globe.

Unmanned, robotic aircraft are unlikely to become the freight trains of the future — they are too inefficient and complex — but they make great press. Even if they are never widely used, drones have proved their worth as weapons in the public relations war between tech titans striving to be seen as visionary builders of our future.

Everybody makes phones, computers, apps and cloud services these days. To stand out in Silicon Valley or Seattle, you need to have a drone program.

Remote-controlled aircraft have been around forever, but robotic models controlled by software — and the mystique of military drones used in the Middle East — have attracted a new generation of enthusiasts and spawned all sorts of marketing stunts. took things to the next level last holiday season when it made a splash on “60 Minutes” by revealing that it has been tinkering with a drone delivery system dubbed “Prime Air.” The company has since held the drone mindshare by trickling out details, such as a revelation in July that it’s seeking FAA approval for flight testing in the Seattle area.

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The attention Amazon drones received must have driven Google nuts.

Founders of the search giant are just as obsessed with aeronautics as Jeff Bezos, and they’d been working for years on their own unmanned aircraft projects. They’re also sick of Amazon getting more kudos — and customers — for its cloud-computing offerings.

Perhaps the last straw was an Aug. 22 report that Amazon is building online ad-placement software to challenge Google’s core business.

A week later Google responded with an aerial attack. An online report in The Atlantic said the company is well on the way to building its own fleet of drones to deliver products ordered online, implying that Google is just as likely to define the future of e-commerce.

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Watching deca-billionaires dogfight in the press with model airplanes is even more surreal than the prospect of a dozen eggs and a carton of milk dropping by parachute onto your porch, delivered by a drone like something out of “The Hunger Games.”

“There are those of us who operate in what seems to be the real world, and then there’s this strange fantasy world where things are like a video game,” drone pioneer Tad McGeer told me last week.

McGeer, who has been building drones for decades, co-founded Insitu, the Bingen, Wash.-based drone maker that Boeing bought for $400 million in 2008. Now he’s president of Aerovel, a company that in 2010 began testing a robotic aircraft called Flexrotor, which takes off vertically, rotates to cruise like a plane, then rotates back and lands itself in the upright position.

During a speech in Portland last month, McGeer took on some myths surrounding drones and their ability to spy on people, saying their ability to see things from up high is exaggerated.

People also may not realize the high costs of operating drones or the extremely limited range of the quadcopters that have become the drone poster child.

“Remember, that thing is not staying in the air for very long — minutes are all you’re going to get,” he said in the speech.

The ScanEagle drone he developed at Insitu can stay aloft for more than 24 hours, but it’s shockingly expensive to operate — $2,000 or more per hour of reconnaissance time in Iraq, if you’ve made arrangements in advance and preordered large amounts of service. The infamous Predator drones may cost more than $10,000 per hour, in part because of the labor involved on the ground, he said.

“There’s a joke about unmanned aircraft. They’re actually very labor intensive,” he told the audience at the TechfestNW conference.

If you just want to get in the air, you can rent a small plane — with far more capacity — for perhaps $150 an hour or a business-class plane for $700 to $2,000 an hour.

These costs explain why we don’t see skies “dark with unmanned aircraft,” he said — they only make sense for certain applications or for governments that don’t care how much they spend.

That made me wonder about the feasibility of hauling packages with drones, except perhaps as a novelty, a branding exercise or something more ambitious.

Even if Google, Amazon and others find ways to bring drone costs down and increase their range and payload capacity, there still will be cheaper, easier and probably safer ways to deliver packages.

A big advance could come if batteries improve dramatically and their costs are driven down by widespread use in electric cars and trucks.

But even then, lower-tech alternatives will be able to deliver more for less.

“It’s hard to imagine they would compete with bicycle couriers, or for that matter taxis, and I don’t see a lot of us using bicycle messengers and taxis delivering us packages, so I’m a little skeptical,” said McGeer.

Drones make the most sense when they’re bringing people high-value information, such as the reconnaissance imagery, weather data and geological surveys that McGeer’s Flexrotor is designed to deliver.

“The costs are such that it’s a little hard to see a payload that’s sufficiently valuable to be transported and make the economics work, other than information,” he told me.

Maybe that’s actually what Google and Amazon have in mind.

They’ve built fortunes by learning as much as they can about our interests, desires, habits, location and spending. In return for sharing, we get the convenience and low-cost of their services.

Perhaps they think, at this point, that the only way to learn more and build an even closer relationship is to physically drop by our homes.

In that case, the drone deliveries to watch are the packets of information going the other direction, back to the mother ships.

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Comments | Topics: aerovel,, Billionaire techies


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