Robots, drones and self-driving cars, oh my

Quick, what do you think about when someone says “robot”?

“It’s a loaded word,” said Steve Cousins at C2SV, or Creative Convergence Silicon Valley, Thursday in San Jose. Cousins, formerly CEO of robot maker Willow Garage, is now chief executive of Savioke, a startup that’s working on robots for the service industry. On one hand, Cousins said, there’s “The Terminator.” On the other hand, robots are commonly used to get schoolkids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Chris Anderson, the former Wired editor who started drone maker 3D Robotics, was also on the C2SV panel titled “Robots, Drones and Self-Driving Cars.” He said we usually stop calling something a “robot” once it works. Then it becomes just a toaster, or a washing machine.

That was one of the main messages from the panel, which also included Singularity University’s Brad Templeton: It’s not that the robots are coming, it’s that they are here. And Cousins, Anderson and Templeton are among those who are figuring out what else we do with them.

3D Robotics, which rose out of Anderson’s DIY Drones website, just raised a second round of funding worth $30 million, it announced Thursday. The company has a few ideas on what we could do with drones.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Anderson told us his interest in robots and drones was a result of “parenting gone horribly wrong.” He bought a kit to try to get his five kids interested in robotics, but “they were spoiled by Hollywood, and real robotics was hard.”

But he said a combination of open source and the maker movement helped make it easy. Now, 3D Robotics sells drones, a.k.a. UAVs, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles, at prices that aren’t too far out of reach for the average hobbyist.

So no, this drone maker wasn’t born out of some sinister plot. Anderson touts helpful uses for drones such as for tracking farmers’ crops, following sports, scientific sensing, mining and more. But as we’ve mentioned before, he has acknowledged the worry surrounding drones, including privacy concerns. And of course, military drones are in a class of their own.

There is also some fear and skepticism surrounding autonomous-driving technology. But Templeton, who is an adviser with Google for its work on self-driving cars, said Thursday that the people he’s had ride the cars were excited and even demanding once they were inside. They wanted the vehicles to be able to do even more.  (For more on self-driving cars, see our interview with Templeton from a couple of weeks ago.)

And that was another point made by the panel: It’s time. Drone and robot technology is at what Anderson is calling “the Macintosh moment,” the turning point at which PCs went mainstream. What’s making it possible? Why now? From their components to the innovations springing up around them, the answer is smartphones, Anderson says.


Photo: From left, Chris Anderson, Steve Cousins and Brad Templeton at the C2SV panel “Robots, Drones and Self-Driving Cars” Thursday at the San Jose Convention Center. (Levi Sumagaysay)



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