Look at this friendly lil' drone! Hey drone! Photo by Caroline Glass.
Drones have a pretty terrible rep right now. They evoke images of the intrusive surveillance state and bombs striking innocent villagers somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan. But drones are just flying robots, and flying robots have the potential to be the most marketable product on the planet. Or at least that’s what Patrick Edwards-Daugherty, CEO of Pleiades Consulting, hopes.
Patrick runs his company out of a warehouse in a gritty section of Halifax where they’re producing what they hope will become the iPhone of drones. Its name is Spiri, and unlike other “quadrotors” (the technical term for flying robots powered by four little helicopter blades), it’s intended to be “credibly part of the human world,” rather than a creepy spy drone, according to Patrick, who realized while developing it that “Spiri needed to be an extension of you… Spiri needed to be friendly.”
Unlike the Predator drones of your CNN-fueled nightmares, or the slightly geeky, probably-owned-by-men-in-camo-pants drones like Parrot’s A.R. Drone 2.0, Spiri is autonomous. When you see one in the sky, there is no soldier (or Soldier of Fortune subscriber) on the other end. Spiri flies itself, and is programmed by a simple set of variables entered into an Android or IOS app.
Communities on drone-building websites like DIYdrones.com, Patrick told me, tend toward a “boys playing at fighting”-type aesthetic. Quadrotors tend to have lame names and are marketed for purely utilitarian purposes, like aerial photography. He wants Spiri to be more of a general-purpose companion, a platform that people can add individual hardware or apps onto. “Spiri can be a courier, a rescuer, a spelunker, a cartographer, a playmate, a gardener, an inspector, a reporter, a teammate, a wanderer, anything,” is how the company’s Kickstarter page puts it.
Patrick sees Spiri as finding a place among tradespeople like disaster-relief crews, and even among groups who oppose the militarization of the skies. “If you’re a protester, and militarized police are taking away your phones and smashing them, Spiri can just fly away,” he said.
On September 10th, Pleiades reached their Kickstarter goal of $125,000 (they peaked at just over $140,000). Though Edwards-Daugherty confesses that he “went into the project pretty cocksure,” he also notes that the fund-raising effort represented a “a test of the market… do people really want a flying, autonomous robot?” Apparently, we do. And back in Halifax, back on that gritty, beers-on-the-porch section of Mitchell Street that Spriri calls home, Patrick and his colleagues say that they are “Thrilled, relieved… and maybe a little terrified.”
History has shown that’s it’s impossible to put technological genies back into their cyber bottles—drones are here to stay, and Patrick’s hope is that this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. “Whatever effect cell phones and the internet have had on leveling the playing field,” he said, “Spiri will accentuate.”
As far as what will come of drones—governmental, corporate, and personal—filling the skies someday, Patrick said, “we’re going to have to find out.”
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