When you are up, and looking down... Chris Anderson, co-founder of 3D Robotics, shares how drones can help more people experience a powerful perspective on our planet.

At the risk of baiting Richard’s wrath, I’ll say that I take air travel for granted, and these days see it more and more as an inconvenience. This goes beyond the usual airport fracas. I get annoyed when the in-flight WiFi is too slow for me to do my work, the weirdness of SkyMall has long since failed me, and I snap my window shut when the sunlight bounces too brightly off the tops of the clouds. But stop and think about that for a moment: the tops of the clouds. How has it become so easy for us to forget that we’re some of the first people in all of human history who have been able to see the clouds from both sides?

But then again, so what? Technology marches inexorably to invisibility. The dishwasher, the toaster oven, the car, the smartphone. Cracking coconuts open with a rock. Passé. These things were once marvels, but now they work so well that we can forget all about them until they don’t. That’s why even the longstanding dream of flight has become to a certain extent invisible, forgotten, replaced by dreams of better in-flight internet.

Today drones draw a lot of eyes. Formerly it was a focus on the military, but now there’s an ongoing and truly palpable shift in public perception to seeing drones in the light of their real promise, as personal and commercial vehicles for good. At 3D Robotics, we know that this technology will change for the better the way that we work, play, and live.

We also know that drones, so hot right now, will one day be as unremarkable as your dishwasher.

Whoa, is that a dishwasher?! Sweet. Will it carry a GoPro?

Whenever people ask about me about drones and the future, I often have to remind them that as William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, famously said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Drones are not the future. Drones are now. They’re on farms, they’re on family vacations, they’re on film sets and on every continent, flying into volcanoes and watching over rhinos and orangutans, ice flows and forest fires. The future is here, and distribution is improving.

At 3DR, however, we don’t see success as a world swarming everywhere with drones. For us, true success will be a world in which drones are everywhere, but we don’t see them.

Right now of course we’re still raising awareness. To help people see their world from above we first need to open eyes, to show people that we’re not just talking about abstract possibilities of the future. We’re talking about possibilities that all of us can realize right now in the present, and very real, world around us. This means that for now we have this “Look up!” sort of imperative, to get people to remember the potential of flight.

Take agriculture, for instance. Until maybe two years ago, I’d never set foot on a farm. But agriculture is the largest industry in the world, and the math says we’ll need to double global food production by 2050.

As it turns out, drones could revolutionize this industry and help us increase crop yields enough to meet that unnerving challenge: in crop scouting; quantifying crop health and vigor; assessing water, pesticide, and fertilizer distribution; identifying and differentiating between pests, diseases, weeds, and stress; it goes on. And as we continue to drive down prices and our platforms become available to more people in more places, they’ll only be more useful and effective.

If you take that principle in agriculture and multiply it out across other industries – any job that requires you to look at something, basically, plus many other fields that involve different sensory inputs and so on – the present suddenly becomes quite clear.

We’ve only just now begun to grasp what we can do. The natural comparison is to the dawn of the personal computer: seven billion people will figure out incredible ways to use the technology we’re creating today.

I built my first drone on my kitchen table with my kids. And when a dumb dad can build a drone out of Legos with his kids, you know something about the world has fundamentally changed.

But to me the really interesting thing is what happens after you look up: you look back down. When I first got a drone to fly a camera and looked back down on my world and myself standing somewhere in it (we had no video stabilization), I was changed again. This felt even more profound but for years I couldn’t express it very well. That was, until Richard Branson was generous enough to invite us to use our drones to capture his life and the dazzling Necker Island in a way it had never been seen before, and he began talking about, the 'overview effect'.

The overview effect, as you may know, is a shift in awareness that many astronauts report feeling upon viewing the Earth from space: the entire fragile planet, all borders and boundaries dissolute, a pale blue dot suspended in isolation. These lucky few report being consumed by a vast and protective empathy for the planet and a yearning for peace and cooperation among all people, and the feeling never leaves them.

Drones can democratize the overview effect. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. They remind us that the truly remarkable thing is not looking up to marvel at the technology of a balloon or airplane or spaceship, it’s really what happens when you are up, and looking down.

At 3DR, we help people see their world from above. First we need to get people to look up and remember the dream of flight. But then we want to know what you want to see, what you want to do – what you can do – when you can look back down.

Chris Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. He was previously Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine and with The Economist, and the scientific journals, Nature and Science. He’s also author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Long Tail and Free, and in 2013 published Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

We’ll be sharing lots of stories from people and organisations using drones for good over the next couple of weeks. Check out our homepage, 'In focus: Drones for good'.

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