GE and Local Motors recently announced the launch of a crowdsourced innovation platform, “Fuse.” The Fuse model is to publicly post problems as a challenge, potentially with a cash prize to solicit submissions, and then evaluate the results. It is part of Local Motors’ new Forth division, and may be joined by similar initiatives with other partners besides GE. As of this publication, Fuse already has four posted active projects related to GE’s innovation needs in non-destructive testing. Fuse will also have 3D printing resources to produce prototypes or for small-batch manufacturing. One GE official claimed that the Fuse model can reduce product development time by 50%, but at this point it is unclear whether that degree of improvement can generalize beyond a few chosen use cases. Continue reading
The technology world is abuzz with the recent announcement that Google is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Facebook had only recently been considering (it bought Ascenta for $20 million instead). Ostensibly, both companies are looking at UAVs (also referred to as “drones”) as an opportunity to deliver Internet access to the roughly five billion people who lack reliable land-based access today. But that goal still leaves many people wondering about the business rationale – how will billing work, who will pay to advertise to the unconnected masses, and what are those technology giants really up to anyway?
To understand why content providers are spending billions on drones, you have to think about their long-term strategy. Recently, there was a huge defeat for Google and other content providers in a ruling about what’s called “Net Neutrality.” It basically says that landline and mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon can start charging more for people to access certain sites, even though they swear the action will not be anticompetitive. So, for example, you might have to pay the carrier extra to see YouTube (which Google owns) or Instagram (which Facebook owns) or Netflix or Amazon Prime movies. In fact, just in February Netflix struck a deal to pay Comcast, which supposedly is already showing faster access times, but has not stopped the partners from bickering over unfair competition and exertion of power. Also, AT&T has a $500 million plan to crush Netflix and Hulu, so the competitive backstabbing has already begun.
Where do drones disrupt this strategy? Most obviously, having their own networks would allow Facebook and Google to bypass the domination of wireless and wireline carriers (like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.) whose business practices – e.g. knocking down Net Neutrality – are geared towards throttling content providers like Facebook, Google, and their partners and subsidiaries like YouTube. Need more bandwidth? New neighborhood being built? Blackout? Natural catastrophe? Launch more drones – and expand service in hours, not years. Drones serving network connectivity allow Google, Facebook, and Amazon to bypass the toll lanes – and, incidentally, make instantly obsolete the landline infrastructure that their enemies Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have spent decades and tens to hundreds of billions of dollars building out. Connectivity in emerging markets is a feint – look for delivering content in the developed world to be the first battle, and call these Machiavellian strategies the “Game of Drones.”
Could this really happen? Both drone technology and wireless connectivity technology are relatively mature and work well. Both are still improving every year of course, and it is possible to deliver some connectivity via drones today. However, more innovation is needed for them to be commercially viable, and future incremental development will be about integrating and improving parts, so more people can have more bandwidth with greater reliability and lower cost. For example, the engineers might integrate the broadband transceiver antenna with the drone’s wings (as Stratasys and Optomec have tried — client registration required) which could eliminate the cost and weight of a separate antenna, while allowing the antenna to also be very large and more effective. Drones’ needs could drive development of battery chemistries that outperform lithium-ion (client registration required), like lithium-sulfur (client registration required) from companies like Oxis Energy (client registration required). High-performance composites and lightweight, lower-power electronics technologies like conductive polymers (client registration required) will also be key.
What’s next? One of the most obvious additional uses would be to attach cameras, and use them for monitoring things like traffic, agriculture, and parks, even finding empty parking spaces – things that an AT&T repair van can never do. Maybe the drones become telemedicine’s robotic first responders (client registration required), sending imagery of accidents as they happen, and swooping down to help doctors reach injured victims within seconds, not minutes. While these examples may seem far-fetched, it’s really very hard to say exactly what they will be used for, only because our own imaginations are very limited.
Within the autonomous airspace space, there’s much more flying around than just glider-style UAVs. For example, Google’s “Project Loon” has similar stated goals of delivering internet access. The new investment in Titan does not necessarily mean Google is leaving lighter-than-air technologies; it’s just that Google has already invested in that technology and is now looking at other aircraft platforms for doing similar things in different environments. Investments in small satellites from companies like SkyBox and PlanetLabs are also taking off. And of course, there are Amazon’s delivery drones – rotary-wing UAVs more like helicopters: speed and navigation in small spaces are important, and they need to carry the weight of packages, so they need to be small and powerful.
Each of these technologies has spin-off effects – both threats and opportunities – for companies in adjacent spaces, such as materials or onboard power. Only batteries or liquid fuels are dense enough energy sources for rotary-wing aircraft, while Google’s Titan and Loon aircraft are more like glider planes or blimps: big, light, and slow, just staying in roughly the same place for hours, days, or even years. Solar energy needs a large area for collecting solar energy, so big glider and blimp drones can use solar. Technology providers in these areas stand to gain if more companies deploy their own UAV fleets.
So, UAVs are an important strategic technology for both companies, even if the money-making part of the business is far off. Yes, someday you might have a Google drone as your ISP, but that’s not the primary business case behind these investments today. Google and Facebook need to make investments in these airborne platforms for the same reasons that countries did 100 years ago – to defend their territory, metaphorically speaking. For example, Nokia should have done a better job launching smartphones before Apple and Google, and Kodak should have launched digital cameras before all the consumer electronics companies did. If Google and Facebook (and Amazon, and others…) don’t have drone technology in five to 10 years, they may be as bankrupt as Nokia and Kodak (ironically, Nokia launched mobile phone cameras, which accelerated Kodak’s bankruptcy). Instead, it may be today’s mobile phone and cable television providers who go the way of the landline.
Looking beyond the land of information technology, these examples are powerful illustrations of the fact that we seldom actually know what any new technology is really going to be used for. Even today, we dismiss mobile phone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter as frivolous social tools, but where would Tunisia and Egypt be today without them? Local Motors (client registration required) is just making one-off dune buggies – until GE sees that their microfactories are the future of manufacturing appliances, too. Crowdfunding is just a bunch of kids selling geegaws – until products like the Pebble smartphone beat the Samsung Gear (client registration required), start challenging the now-retreating Nike Fuelband, and even attack the smart home market. Google and Facebook might be saying today that they intend to bring connectivity to new places, even if in reality nobody at all can really say what they’ll do in 2018. While they probably have secret plans, those plans are almost certainly wrong – but better than no plan at all. Companies that plan to survive beyond a few quarterly earnings calls have to make sure they are well positioned to catch whatever falls from new technology’s blue skies.
Earlier this week, technology billionaire Elon Musk revealed his ideas for “hyperloop,” a speculative new mode of high-speed transportation. The system would propel car-sized compartments through low-pressure tubes (like pneumatic tubes once used to move mail through office buildings) at 1,000 km/h. Musk says that connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles (through a proposed $20-fare, 35-minute ride) with the system would cost about $7 billion, or a tenth of the projected cost of California’s beleaguered high-speed rail system meant to connect those cities – and could be built in less than a decade.
Naturally, such a bold idea immediately attracted criticism, such as a USA Today article listing mundane reasons it won’t work like “you’d have to slow down for turns” and “the towers would have to be made safe.” Of course, others fell over themselves praising the plan, reasoning that Musk’s vision is so awesome that even if it doesn’t quite turn out as planned, it would still be great, anyway. While it’s easy to get overly excited or overly skeptical about the concept, a dose of datapoints is useful:
- If Musk hadn’t proposed it, it wouldn’t be worth attention. Musk is a singularly successful entrepreneur, having quickly turned equally-futuristic ideas into successful businesses several times: electronic money (PayPal moves $150 billion a year), electric vehicles (Tesla is profitable (client registration required) and the cars, though expensive, are critically acclaimed), solar energy (SolarCity gets Lux’s much-coveted “Strong Positive” — client registration required), spaceflight (SpaceX, which developed a national-grade space program in seven years and makes a profit). Musk’s solid record lends credibility to an otherwise fanciful idea (client registration required).
- The system requires no exotic new materials, properties of matter, or unproven technologies. Musk’s 57-page detailed explanation of the idea explains how the system might work using relatively off-the-shelf technologies. It acknowledges that there are many engineering problems to be solved, and offers the concept as an open-source blueprint – a starting point for something actually workable. As such, the many solid criticisms of the plan actually move it forward.
- Musk’s announcement should be seen as political commentary wrapped in an engineering design. The white paper opens not with a visionary problem statement, but by stating, “When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?” Like many California taxpayers, Musk is frustrated by the cost overruns, delays, and mediocre performance of the state’s high-speed rail program, and the political problem is arguably the one Musk aims to solve.
Of course, a tech entrepreneur’s political commentary isn’t newsworthy either, and there has been rampant speculation as to whether Musk – or anyone – could successfully build the contraption. Pneumatic transportation is not novel, and similar – if much slower – versions of pneumatically-propelled people pushers have been envisioned, and even deployed, long ago. Paris and New York had air-powered public transit in the 1870s. The vacuum-tube variation Musk is currently proposing has recently been explored in China and in Switzerland. So how does the concept stand up to technical scrutiny?
- Hyperloop’s cost-per-kilometer would be as revolutionary as its speed. California high-speed rail’s high cost per kilometer is as much a consequence of political and environmental issues as the technology, and those concerns would likely dog Hyperloop, too. Musk proposes an elevated, high-technology solution that would indeed address issues like land use, but such systems are if anything even more expensive: the Shanghai Pudong monorail cost $1.3 billion to build and is 30 km long ($40 million/km), while the Airtrain monorail in NYC cost $1.2 billion for just 12 km of track ($100 million/km). One way to defray the cost might be co-locating the route with other state-spanning infrastructure. Using the same right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline or energy transmission lines with PG&E, fiber-optic cable (which are routinely co-located inside city sewers) or water could be part of the calculus (client registration required).
- The passenger pod’s cousin, Tesla, could supply on-board power technology. On-board batteries are not a technological hurdle, because the initial acceleration (and subsequent boosts) needs would be met by external, stationary linear electric motors and their energy sources (client registration required). The on-board batteries would then be used primarily for powering a large electric compressor fan at the front of the Hyperloop. The resulting battery would likely be on the order of 200 kWh – about three Tesla Model S’s worth of energy storage capacity, which can be engineered using today’s battery technology. Moreover, these batteries would contribute only a sliver – less than 0.1% – to the overall cost of the Hyperloop, being dwarfed by infrastructure like pylon construction and land permits.
- Even in sunny California, the solar-powered system would need backup storage. While Musk’s plan assumes the energy requirements of the system could be met by solar energy – perhaps he is hoping that SolarCity will get the installation contract – solar panels would need grid storage to operate at the expected utilization rate. So while solar power will help, the larger energy storage opportunity would be in the stationary batteries required to operate the Hyperloop’s linear electric motors at night or in poor weather.
- The open-source model is an open invitation to rail system manufacturers like Bombardier, Siemens, and ABB. Siemens test-drove crowdsourcing by opening up its engineering software to the Local Motors crowd, with the now-available Rally Fighter vehicle a testimony to its success. As with other “big innovations,” the spinoffs of R&D on Hyperloop would benefit adjacent technologies, and advance the process of collaborative design. Manufacturers of other high-performance transport vehicles, such as automotive, aircraft, and spacecraft – like Musk’s SpaceX or the NewSpace community (client registration required) – should join the Hyperloop crowd.