Category Archives: Unmanned Aerial Systems

My Radio Shack Recovery Plan

I admit it, I’m a geek.    When the weather wasn’t good, or if I was especially bored at playing manhunt, during the ages of  10 to 12 I spent a lot of time at my local Radio Shack.   Doing what?  Buying breadboard kits and building a radio.  Having a conversation with Eliza on a TRS-80 (and oh my, the hours spent playing Zork).  Buying my very own TRS Color Computer.  Physically hacking it to increase the RAM to 32KB by stacking chips and soldering wire.   Writing some software to remap the game cartridge memory to the memory space occupied by RAM (and then dumping that out to the state of the art tape cassette drive).   POKEing a memory space to double (that’s right DOUBLE) the MC6809 chip to a whopping 1.9mhz!   All within a context and community environment that nurtured geeks (no question was stupid) and provided help (with regular meet-up sessions while the store was open and after it closed).

When do I go to Radio Shack now?   Hardly ever.  Only if I need something “right now” and I’m willing to pay those “right now” inflated prices (e.g. $10 for a splitter that I could get from Amazon via Prime for $.99 if I could wait two days).   If I’m going to buy a computer, I’m not shopping there.   A mobile phone?  Nope.  A TV? Certainly not.  Batteries (probably not, unless it falls into the “right now” category and it is a non-standard size).  Are my kids going to shop there?  Are my 12 and 11 year old boys going to ask “Hey can we go to Radio Shack?”   Not a chance.  You get my point.

I’m obviously not alone.  A few weeks ago Radio Shack announced that it is closing 1,100 stores nationwide after same store sales plummet 19%.  They obviously recognize that they have a “brand” image challenge (their Superbowl ad was actually quite funny).  I would love to see a re-invigorated and vibrant community of Radio Shack stores – and so I offer the following Radio Shack “recovery plan.”

Return to your roots – You didn’t become successful because you sold all sorts of consumer goods to all kinds of people.  Admittedly, the selling environment has changed entirely (big box retail stores, discount stores, online availability of everything), but who your customer is (or should be) really hasn’t changed.  More on that later.

Start a conversation, build a community – It is difficult to survive in a low-margin, high-volume business that is today’s consumer electronics market.   You will not now (not ever) make that tech-savvy purchaser buy a TV from you.  You can engage certain types of prospects.  Sales is a process.  It is a conversation.  Re-create the environment to have good meaningful conversations about (high margin, yet to be commoditized) tech which interests them.  Those conversations may be with you, but most likely they will be with others. Hold meet-ups.  Let folks play with things in the store.  Make it become a place (again) that certain folks want to go.  And who might those folks be?

Target makers and the makers to be –  Look no further than the community of “makers” and “doers” who are building things, programming things, flying things and printing things.  They exist everywhere. These were the folks you sold to before. These are the folks you should sell to again.  Concentrate on STEM engagement with the children – partner with your local elementary and middle schools to show and demonstrate cool technologies.  Become a partner for Lego Mindstorms.  Let kids play Minecraft in the store.  Put it up on monitors for people to see.  Sell Rasberry Pi dev kits, as well as holding in store programming course sessions.  Target all kinds of robotics and RC hobbyists, including of course those who are flying all types of unmanned aerial platforms (single rotor, multi-rotor, fixed wing, etc.).  Partner with 3D Robotics and/or Airware to take their tech directly to consumers.  Explain/help folks to get their projects on Quirky or start a campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo.   Sell AR Drones as an entry point for folks to get into unmanned aerial systems.  Go beyond offering 3D printers by offering classes on how to make them work most effectively (what software to use, what 3D scanners to buy, etc.).  You already know this – admittedly, this is one pretty funny Radio Shack ad featuring 3D printing.  Partner with folks like Shapeways to allow people to capture/design items in the store and then have them drop shipped to their homes.   Show folks how to do it.  Nurture the entire 3D printing ecosystem (not just the printers as the end to themselves).   And with all of this, plug them back into a growing community of makers/doers and users.

Hire people who are makers and geeks – Hire people that are advocates for your target markets and consumers.  No disrespect meant, but the folks who I have come across at Radio Shack recently (admittedly a very small sample size) didn’t look like they wanted to be there and certainly weren’t makers themselves.  This is obviously difficult (because it is a self-reinforcing system), but make the “next/first” hire somebody who identifies with the target communities you are selling to.   Why would I want to buy a 3D printer from somebody who really wishes that they working at Best Buy instead (and regardless, they have no idea what a water-tight STL is. . .)?

Consider the policy perspective – Go to Washington and start lobbying on behalf of makers, doers, builders and flyers.  Help shape policy around thorny issues relating to 3D printing, unmanned aerial systems and robotics.  Partner with existing organizations that share similar views.  Become a positive voice in Washington for the community (of buyers) who you represent.

Result: Selling to a high margin/non-commoditized market – Following the above would get you right back to where you were at the beginning, selling high margin technology to the early-adopters, before things got commoditized.   In many cases you are selling solutions where a community of others (and their knowledge) is required to get things “right” – like in the earlier days of the personal computing market, when you sold TRS-80s and CoCos.  And breadboards.  And capacitors.  And wires.  And motors.  And a community.  You get the picture.

I’ll bet if you did the above many folks will start visiting and communicating in your stores again – my kids might even ask to stop by, to play Minecraft at the very least. 😉

Administrative Law Judge Decides that Commercial Drone Use is Not Prohibited by FAA Rules

UPDATE ON 3/7 : Not surprisingly, the FAA has appealed, and of course taking the position that this appeal “stays” the ALJ’s decision on the “ban” and that the “ban” is still in effect.  This is of course the view that the FAA should take.  An alternate view is that there never was a valid “ban” at all – so the ALJ’s decision solely relating to Pirker’s fine is stayed (e.g. the Motion to Dismiss).


The FAA attempted to fine Raphael Pirker $10,000 for “illegally” flying his plane at the University of Virginia, gathering film for a commercial.

His defense?  Quite simple.  Pirker argued that the FAA had no basis for fining him because the FAA had never gone through the rulemaking process and attempted to regulate model aircraft.  In other words, his activity wasn’t illegal, and a 2007 FAA policy notice wasn’t binding.

On March 6th, 2014, Patrick Geraghty, an Administrative Law Judge with the National Transportation Safety Board, ruled in favor of Piker, and dismissed the FAA’s fine.   In reviewing the applicable law, he held that while the FAA certainly had valid regulations pertaining to “aircraft”, they did not extend to “model aircraft” – that the FAA had historically (themselves) distinguished between those devices, and couldn’t now argue that regulations relating to aircraft encompassed models as well.

It is concluded that, as [the FAA]: has not issued an enforceable FAR regulatory rule governing model aircraft operation; has historically exempted model aircraft from the statutory FAR definitions of “aircraft” by relegating model aircraft operations to voluntary compliance with the guidance expressed in AC 91-57, Respondent’s model, aircraft operation was not subject to FAR regulation, and enforcement.

Decisional Order, Page 3.

Judge Geraghy also concluded that Congress, at least in 2012, must not have believed that there were any rules in place relating to the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems.  Why?  Because when they passed the FAA Modernization Re-authorization and Reform Act of 2012, specifically Subtitle B, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Congress directed the FAA to define acceptable standards for operation and certification of civil UAS.  Why do that it rules already existed?

Because the FAA had never completed the rulemaking process for “model aircraft” or “unmanned aerial systems” and because his model was not covered by FAR rules governing “aircraft” then Pirker’s actions (flying his plane for commercial use) were not prohibited by law.

The entire Decisional Order can be found here ALJ Pirker Decision (3.7.14).

FAA Publishes UAS Roadmap and Comprehensive Plan

The FAA announced today  the availability of the FAA’s first annual roadmap for the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS), as well as the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO)’s comprehensive plan, the purpose of which is to safely accelerate the integration of civil UAS into the national airspace system – it is a multi-agency approach to USA integration and coordination with the shift to satellite-based technologies and new procedures.   If you are interested in UAS developments in the US, these are both well worth reading.

I am digesting these documents now.  I will provide some thoughts on them over the coming days.  Exciting times for the UAS industry in the US indeed!


MapBox, Geo Software Platform, Maps $10M from Foundry Group

It is great to see continuing venture capital and public market interest in areas such as data acquisition, unmanned aerial systems, manufacturing, AEC and GIS solutions providers.

MapBox (@MapBox) announced yesterday that it had taken a Series A investment of $10M from Foundry Group (@FoundryGroup).  After three years of bootstrapping the MapBox business, in the words of Eric Gundersen (@ericg), funding lets us plan for years of building the future of geo software, from the ground up.

MapBox is a cloud-based platform which allows for developers to embed geo rich content into their web and mobile offerings.  MapBox sources its mapping data from OpenStreetMap, keeping its operating costs low and without a tie to proprietary back end mapping databases.   It will be interesting to see how MapBox navigates the GIS/Geo Software playing field over the coming years – but more developer choices, relying on crowd-sourced mapping data, could be quite transformational indeed.

Foundry Group continues its string of investments in the technical solutions space.  They were part of a team which invested $30M into Chris Anderson’s (@chr1sa) unmanned aerial systems company 3D Robotics (@3DRobotics) a few weeks ago, which I blogged about here and were also invested into Makerbot (@Makerbot), which was recently acquired by the 3D printing company Stratasys (@Stratasys) (in mid-August 2013) for $403M (+up to $201M in earn-outs).  Seth Levine (@sether) explained some of Foundry Group’s rationale for the MapBox investment here.

Foundry Group is currently also invested into Occipital (@Occipital) which has recently developed a 3D capture device which connects to an iPad, called the Structure Sensor.  Occipital currently has a KickStarter campaign going for the Structure Sensor, and as of today they are only a few thousand dollars shy of the $1M mark. In June 2013 Occipital acquired ManCTL, adding a strong team to an already deep computer vision bench, but in this case on that had the chops to do real time 3D scene reconstruction from PrimeSense powered (a/k/a the Microsoft Kinect) devices.  Foundry Group put $8M into Occipital in August of 2011.

I am very excited to ultimately see what comes from both MapBox and Occipital!

It will be interesting to see whether/if Andreessen Horowitz (@a16z) looks for a big data, geo centric sector investment as well.

Unmanned Aerial Systems: Global Trends 2030 Part Deux

I have previously blogged about the late 2012 publication from the United States National Intelligence Council titled Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.  This is the fifth in a series of publications from the NIC examining future scenarios (the first was published in 1996/97) – but this is first time that the authors have included sections devoted to potentially disruptive future technologies.

Global Trends 2030 covers a wide range of topics and represents a framework for thinking about the future – identifying critical trends and the potential discontinuities or breaks that might occur.  The report identifies “megatrends” (those trends which will likely occur under any future scenario) and “game-changers” (representing variables which may significantly impact or change any of the future scenarios).   As before, I would highly suggest that you download and read a copy of this publication on your own – it represents the considered, critical thinking of hundreds, if not thousands, of the best analysts in the world – and if you have the inclination (and time!) to look at the source materials which can be found hosted on the National Intelligence Council’s website. It would seem that the study authors have identified many potentially disruptive future applications of technology into unmet market needs – this should be on every venture capitalist’s reading list!

In my earlier blog Global Trends 2030: Is 3D Printing the Catalyst for a Worldwide Industrial Revolution I gave a general overview of the Global Trends 2030 content (which I will not repeat here, but encourage you to read) and then concentrated on the future trends identified by the authors in advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.  Today I am going to review the sections of the report covering the potential future impacts of remote and autonomous vehicles, including unmanned aerial systems (a/k/a “drones”).

Within Game Changer #5 (the impact of New Technologies) – the authors discuss the potential impacts of various automation and advanced manufacturing technologies, concentrating on the transformation of robotics from an industrial process enhancer (and various military uses) to consumer (and health) markets, the use of remote or autonomous vehicles (including unmanned aerial systems), as well as the impact of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies (which I covered previously).  The authors first differentiate between remote vehicles (which are human operated and controlled, via telepresence or otherwise) versus autonomous vehicles (which are mobile platforms which can operate without any direct human control, relying on sensors and software to navigate, avoid obstacles, and perform their mission).

UAS Global Trends 2030

Chart from page Global Trends 2030, page 91.  The authors note that “Low-cost UAVs with cameras and other types of sensors could support wide-area geo-prospecting, support precision farming, or inspect remote power lines.”  Global Trends 2030, page 92.

The democratization of UAS products and platforms will no doubt bring substantial societal benefits – but as with all new and emerging technologies, there are areas for legitimate concern as well – ranging from the risks of UAS collisions (with other aerial systems, ground based assets, or people), privacy concerns (UAS overflights capturing all kinds of surveillance data, whether done by individuals or government agencies), to a UAS being used as a platform for terrorism, among others.  Consider the “what if” an individual or small team has access to disruptive UAS technologies that were formerly reserved to nation states (e.g cm accurate GPS UAS). For what Global Trends 2030 authors think on the negatives to this kind of “individual empowerment” – See Global Trends, pages 67-70.

I am personally excited about the tremendous potential that UAS platforms will provide for future generations – there are many near term potential opportunities. I am confident that the risks of UAS platforms can be managed and minimized through the smart application of technology, best practices and process, and an appropriate regulatory framework.  It is always important to recognize that UAS devices are not new – individual hobbyists and makers have been flying all types of devices (fixed wing, single rotor, multi-rotor) for many years.  What is new is the potential democratization of this technology through lower price points, broader access to technology (via crowd funding devices like Kickstarter), and the commercial successes of existing devices (like the Parrot AR Drone series).

While the current regulatory framework within the United States has limited the commercial application of UAS in the United States, it is only a matter of time (and very little time at that) before these types of sensor platforms are used and exploited within our borders (as they are used elsewhere in the world).  Precision agriculture (using a UAS for the precision localization/application of fertilizer, insecticide, water management, etc.), first responder/emergency/humanitarian use (deploy a UAS to hover on station immediately upon a 911 call, use in searches, fly and hover to avalanche beacons, etc.), and infrastructure maintenance and management (use a UAS to inspect large constructed assets such as bridges, pipe/power lines) are first among many in book.

I am particularly excited about the use of unmanned aerial systems as a sensor platform coupled with high precision cameras, z-depth cameras or even laser scanners in order to complete real time 3D scene reconstruction.  The combination of highly accurate GPS location with such sensor platforms would allow for the capture of highly accurate 3D representations of real world assets (constructed or otherwise) supporting all types of markets and functions (modeling, inspection, enterprise asset maintenance, etc.).

Global Trends 2030: Is 3D Printing the Catalyst for a Worldwide Industrial Revolution?

A few weeks back, on one of my many flights, I had an opportunity to read Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, a publication of the National Intelligence Council (NIC).1

I found Global Trends 2030 to be sometimes a disturbing but always a fascinating read.2 I would highly recommend reading this publication, not because it makes specific predictions about the future (no one can do that) but because it does an excellent job of outlining the range of potential drivers and resulting outcomes that we, as a truly global society, will need to deal with in the future. For an alternative view of what the world of 2030 might look like, another worthwhile publication is Strategic Global Outlook: 2030, Ed. by Alexander A. Dynkin.3

Global Trends 2030 is broken into three main sections: (1) Megatrends, (2) Game-Changers and (3) Potential Worlds. The last section covers scenarios resulting from the first two. I am going to concentrate my review here on the Megatrends section.

Under Megatrends, the authors detail four broad themes that will influence the geopolitical landscape over the next 15-20 years (see below).


While shifting demographics (e.g., the aging of the West) and multipolar coalitions are certainly interesting, I was absolutely fascinated by the predictions around Individual Empowerment and Food, Water and Energy Nexus. I will provide some thoughts on the Individual Empowerment section below.

Individual Empowerment

Global Trends in 2030 predicts that individual empowerment will accelerate over the next 15-20 years because of the substantial reduction of poverty, the growth of the middle class, and improvements in educational opportunities and health care. Some of the drivers behind this shift are predicted to include the widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies. Potentially, this newfound access could enable disruptive, destructive individual “empowerment,” such as bioterror weapons or cyber instruments, both of which were formerly reserved to nation states. But improved access will likely be beneficial as well. Specifically in the case of manufacturing and automation technologies, the rise of 3D printing and robotics are predicted to change work patterns in both developed and developing worlds, thus diminishing the need for outsourcing (hurting semi-skilled workers in certain markets) but also stimulating an entirely new market of micro-manufacturers throughout the world.

Additive manufacturing could lead to large numbers of micro-factories akin to preindustrial revolution craft guilds, but with modern manufacturing capabilities. Such local micro-factories could manufacture significant amounts of products, especially those for which transportation costs are traditionally high or delivery times are long, and in the process shorten and simplify supply chains.

Later on the writers add:

Additive manufacturing could also level the playing field for those countries or organizations that missed out on earlier periods – because additive manufacturing requires less industrial infrastructure than conventional manufacturing.

The implication here is that countries that didn’t or couldn’t invest in infrastructure-supporting land-based telephone lines, but instead jumped straight to cellular and other wireless telecommunications methods, can begin to produce and sell their own products rather than simply watching traditional manufacturing powerhouses grab all the sales.


For the potential impact of additive manufacturing technologies in the world of 2030, see pages x, 86, 91 and 93 in Global Trends 2030.

The thinking here follows the same theme as Chris Anderson does in his book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution” (which I had separately reviewed in my blog post from November 2012. As I wrote then, Anderson envisions a future where micro-manufacturers will fundamentally change the entire product development and manufacturing ecosystem. According to Anderson, new product manufacturing is “no longer the domain of the few, but the opportunity of the many.”

Additive Manufacturing As a Societal Change Agent?

Will the continuing explosion of additive manufacturing technologies live up to the promise suggested by Global Trends 2030 and by Anderson in “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”?

Of course continuing technological developments will be required. For example, capturing 3D content and being able to use that content as part of a modeling session is still too hard and too expensive. But the good news is that cheaper 3D data acquisition tools and devices are trending upward. It is encouraging seeing young companies like Matterport and Floored receiving funding, and it was only a matter of time before 3D data acquisition tools would show up on Kickstarter. (See Lynx, which, at the time of this writing, has nearly reached its initial modest funding goal only a few days into the campaign kickoff.)

3D reality capture is only one part of the picture – continuing workflow simplification is key. Devices that can print with better, different and cheaper materials are required. Being able to vary material properties during the build process, and in the same build volume, will likely be key. Finally, we as an industry need to invest in the future makers, engineers and scientists with a concerted and coordinated effort to promote STEM in elementary, middle and high schools. What Lego Education does is instructive, we can learn from them.

As I wrote in my blog Reality Versus Hype: Analyzing the Innovation Hype Cycle on 3D Scanning and Printing:

I do believe, however, that we are at unique place in time, a time in which technology, market acceptance and demand are converging to catalyze change in the 3D capture and 3D printing space, carrying the space down-market from current industrial use cases. In the future, design professionals, students and children will be able to easily take innovation and inspiration from the real articles and objects that surround them, mash them up, and create entirely new designs along with a new creation and innovation cycle. What is needed is a simple-to-use, integrated end-to-end solution that allows people to easily capture, interact with, modify, manipulate and reproduce real-world 3D content. I believe we are not too far away.

I still believe that.

If I look at how much progress has been made in only the last six months, the world of 2030 looks realistic indeed.

Thanks for reading.

Formed in 1979, the NIC “supports the Director of National Intelligence [US] in his role as head of the Intelligence Community (IC) and is the IC’s center for long-term strategic analysis.” It is a bridge between the policy and intelligence communities with officers from academia, the private sector, the government and everywhere in between. For more on the NIC, click here. For a direct link to a downloadable copy of Global Trends 2030, in various forms (PDF, Kindle, etc.)click here.

This report is intended to stimulate thinking about the rapid and vast geopolitical changes characterizing the world today and possible global trajectories during the next 15-20 years. As with the NIC’s previous Global Trends reports, we do not seek to predict the future  which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications.

Unless otherwise noted, my reference point for the data in this blog has been drawn directly from the report itself.

A publication of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences

[This blog was originally published on February 8th, 2013]