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Drones the future of food?

SD, Tijuana-based 3D Robotics CEO thinks so

“If my company and companies like us in our community do our job, a generation will not remember that drones were once a military technology, the same way they don’t remember that the Internet was once a military technology,” said Chris Anderson, co-founder of 3D Robotics, a San Diego- and Tijuana-based drone manufacturing company and the former editor of Wired magazine, recently at an Atlantic Meets the Pacific interview at Scripps Seaside Forum in San Diego.

What everyday applications would erase the military stigma from drone technology, currently in the midst of a public relations crisis? Anderson said the answer initially surprised him, but he is now confident that drones will transform one of the world’s largest industries: agriculture.

“Drones are going to be one of the biggest sources of big data in the biggest industry in the world, which is agriculture,” Anderson said. “What these do is they take cameras and they put them over fields, and what that gives the farmer is information about the consequences of their farming choices – so, water, chemicals, growth patterns, planting strategies and all this kind of stuff.”

That data means a more efficient use of water and chemicals, which Anderson said farmers currently use prophylactically without the means of knowing which areas to target and when.

He believes that drones, which can see crop fields through infrared lenses to gauge the health of plants based on their chlorophyll levels, will allow for a more economical, sustainable and healthy use of resources.

“We increase the chemical load in our environment and our food because we have a paucity of data,” he said. “What drones can do is basically give you instantaneous feedback. You don’t have to spray fungicide because you don’t have a fungal infection. And when you do have a fungal infection, you’ll know about it and spray there. So I laugh about it: When I got into this, I thought it was the future of flight -- I think drones may actually be the future of food.”

In addition to transforming the agricultural industry, Anderson said, drones are also particularly useful in scoping perimeter areas for border patrol, are being experimented with by large companies to do warehouse inventory at night, and could eventually put pilots out of business if a sense-and-avoid functionality can be developed and perfected.

He said security concerns about drones are valid but not cause for too much concern, because drone technology has existed for decades, and there are far more effective means of delinquency.

Anderson said the drones that 3D Robotics produces are about 2 pounds of foam and only capable of carrying one kilogram, meaning using them to carry explosives or drugs would be very ineffective given other, traditional means of doing these things.

Since the basic concept of optionally piloted aircraft has existed for so long, how far has drone technology come in that time and how much longer until it hits lifecycle maturation? Using a personal computer analogy, Anderson said drones are at about 1983.

“(Steve) Jobs and (Steve) Wozniak and these bunch of dirty hippies in the home-brew computing club … decided to make basically the worst computer in the world,” he said. “But it was the only computer in the world that you could control yourself.

“That was ’77, and it got better and better and better until Macintosh in 1984, where it became easy enough to use that it sort of took the complexity out of it. I think we’re about 1983. I’m not going to say we have come up with the Macintosh of drones quite yet, but we’re right on the verge.”

3D Robotics has its engineering facility in Tijuana and the manufacturing component on the U.S. side of the border in Otay Mesa, close enough that you could bike between buildings and the two could even share a Wi-fi hotspot with the right antenna.

Anderson, who lived in China for a time and was wowed by the country’s manufacturing prowess, said Tijuana was chosen because it’s his co-founder’s hometown, but he quickly realized the full extent of its advantages.

“So this guy happened to be from Tijuana, which I had thought of as being drug cartels and cheap tequila, and now most of my team is in Tijuana -- they’re brilliant young engineers,” Anderson said. “Mexico graduates more engineers than the United States. Mexico’s No. 1 export is not what you think it is. It is instead electronics.

“If you want to know what the closest thing to Shenzhen (China) is in this hemisphere, it’s Tijuana.”

As for the advantages of business in the United States, Anderson said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that it’s a far less optimistic tale.

“The only difference being that FedEx is cheaper in the U.S. than it is in Mexico,” Anderson said. “So that’s our lasting competitive advantage.”

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