Recently my daughter pointed to the sky and exclaimed with bubbling sounds, her contentment over seeing something magical. There was a metal capsule hurtling magnificently through the stratosphere, carrying hundreds of passengers in remarkable comfort.
This engineering marvel, this wondrous machine dreamed of for generations and still so recently invented; this airplane (and its beloved cousin the rotorcraft) is an invention that truly changed the world as a force of connection and empowerment. It’s the thing that is now drawing my daughter's loving eyes to the sky, and I hope she keeps them there, because the age of aviation is magical. Louis CK is far more persuasive at driving this home. In a hilarious rant on Conan he says with exasperation, "You're sitting in a chair in the sky! You're like a Greek myth..."
It's fair to say I'm not the guy Louis was trying to persuade of aviation's majesty. Like my little girl, the lore of flight grabbed me early. I was the kid who said I wanted to be a pilot in kindergarten. When I got to college, I decided I couldn't wait any longer and dropped out to enlist in the Army, and was flying helicopters as a warrant officer by the time I was 20.
The aviation career that's followed for nearly two decades has been rewarding beyond words, and has taken me from aerial adventures in the cockpit to the inspiring opportunities of being the CEO of SkyWard, one of the first commercial drone software companies in the rising tide of aerial robotics (AR).
Aviation’s heritage is captivating and its future fascinating. As I look skyward with renewed imagination and wonder through my daughter's eyes, I'm certain that the promise in aviation technology has only just begun to be realized. She'll look up one day and know a trusted network of aerial robotics weaving paths of intelligence across urban skies as easily as packets of information pass across the Internet today... Packages of goods moving across the city tuned with great specificity to real-time market demand. Sensors describing air currents, reservoir levels, bridge strength, or toxicity; a search engine for the real world; the Internet become physically manifest.
The seeds are all around us, and if you’re looking closely at the drone landscape, it’s easy to see some healthy green stalks already shooting up towards this emerging silicon sky. Companies like 3D Robotics are cultivating an open ecosystem and providing a medium for innovations in AR hardware and software to iterate and flourish. What Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief at WIRED and now CEO of 3DRobotics, has built looks a lot like the early days of the Android ecosystem, and the first wave of innovative applications and services delivered by AR are just starting to ripen on the vine. DJI and Parrot are distributing thousands of ready-to-fly robots per week to consumers and professionals all over the world, providing the first truly ubiquitous nodes of a future AR network; much like the Apple IIe was distributed to so many households ahead of the Internet being established. NASA is bringing a very promising federal glue to it all with its UTM program; an audacious and visionary project to form digital highways in the sky that connect all the dots of this new infrastructure.
The seeds are planted, the stocks are sprouting, and there is a river of nutrients filling the AR ecosystem in the form of a ‘drones for good’ movement that’s democratizing the aerial perspective for the enhancement of our communities. Aerial surveys supporting ecological study and conservation; a bird’s eye view to enhance situational awareness for fire fighters; delivering vaccines across a roadless space in the developing world... these are just a few of the examples we’ve seen. Not surprisingly, the strongest currents seem to swell from the beloved four tributaries of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
The promise of STEM education came to life for me at the Drone Prize finals, where I saw high school and college students light up with enthusiasm for the possibilities this technology holds. Shepherded in by wise and kind teachers in science and engineering, they held a new tool for the first time, and they immediately got to the business of unlocking the marvels of the next generation. The winning team from Furman University, using minimalist consumer-grade gear and guided by a noble mission to understand the correlation between street lights and crime, set out to write a new kind of map for an underprivileged community in the rural south. The team sought a highly quantitative understanding of the world told through ortho-rectified, digital maps and sociological metadata, and they seemed to walk away from the experience with an inspired intellectual curiosity for what would be possible as they stand up to take the reigns of aviation history.
I'm guessing that my daughter's aviation dreams will be even more interesting than saying something obvious here like, ‘She’ll want to be the captain of the first Virgin Galactic cruise to Mars'. And I love to think of her referring to this era of aviation as perhaps a gilded age of sorts; the era when aerial robotics (AR) became as common to our civilization’s infrastructure as personal computers, the Internet that connected them, the smartphone that made information mobile, and the airplane itself. The era when ‘drones for good’ changed the way we look at the world and the way we improve it.
Jonathan Evans is a self-proclaimed “Geeky Pilot,” with 19 years of aviation experience and possesses both commercial pilot and flight instructor ratings in airplanes and helicopters. He joins the aerial robotics industry with a passion for innovation and a deep knowledge of regulations. As the CEO and Founder of SkyWard, Jonathan and his team are bridging the gap between commercial operators, regulators, and insurers to support the integration of aerial robotics into the worldwide airspace. Follow SkyWard on Twitter @SkyWardIO or Jonathan @jwce21.
– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.
We’re sharing lots of stories from people and organisations using drones for good. Check out our homepage, 'In focus: Drones for good'.