Skydio’s enterprise pivot kicks off with a new drone | TechCrunch

Last month, Skydio announced that it was shutting down its consumer drone business. DJI continues to dominate the category globally, but when the Shenzhen-based firm found itself on the wrong side of a U.S. government ban, Skydio was there to reap the benefit. The Bay Area company has since found success catering to the enterprise space, with a focus on government contracts.

Unsurprisingly, the pivot took centerstage at today’s Skydio Ascend event today in San Francisco. The new Skydio X10 was the star of the show, representing a full embrace of the well-funded startup’s new direction. The drone is specifically targeting first responders, the military and infrastructure inspection – all fairly established use cases in this world.

“The Skydio X10 combines the sensors customers need to get the data they care about, with the airframe and autonomy to put those sensors in the most important places at the most important times,” cofounder and CEO Adam Bry notes in a statement. “It can do everything expected of leading manually flown drones, but it has the autonomy to enable a scale, scope, and impact that has so far been elusive for the drone industry.”

The system offers some modularity, with four spots for payloads and replaceable sensors. The primary camera is 48-megapixels, with an on-board zoom that Skydio says is “capable of reading license plates at 800 feet.”

That’s paired with a 50-megapixel wide angle camera and a Flir thermal camera. Like the X2, the system is foldable for quick storage. It also sports an IP54 water resistance rating and 5G connectivity A new NightSense feature, meanwhile, improves flight in pitch black settings.

DJI isn’t mincing words around the impact that DJI’s addition to the entity list has had on its own fortunes, noting in a press release that, “the imperative to diminish reliance on Chinese-manufactured drones has become increasingly evident, fueled by security concerns.” The company also touts U.S. manufacturing, based in nearby Hayward, California.

Skydio has had no shortage of funding, either. In February, the company announced a $230 million Series E at a valuation of $2.2 billion.

Skydio closing consumer drone business | TechCrunch

Skydio today announced that it will be shutting down its consumer drone business.

Beginning today, the firm will no longer be selling its Skydio 2+ Starter, Sports, Cinema or Pro kits, although it will continue to offer the Skydio 2+ Enterprise Kit to business customers. Skydio also promises to continue supporting those consumers who have already purchased a drone. That includes offering vehicle repairs and other support related to warranties. The company says it will also stock batteries, propellers and other accessories “for as long as we can.”

Skydio is closing up its consumer wing as it expands support for various enterprise offerings. The firm has established 1,500 clients that also include various public service applications.

Our drones are making the core industries that our civilization runs on – public safety, transportation, energy, construction, and defense – safer and more efficient,” founder Adam Bry writes in a post outlining the news. “And it’s becoming more and more clear every day that we need trusted, secure drones to meet these critical applications. The impact we’re having with our enterprise and public sector customers has become so compelling that it demands nothing less than our full focus and attention.”

The Bay Area-based Skydio has seen a massive boost, as drone giant DJI has landed on the wrong side of various government bans amid rising U.S./China tensions. It’s been a large driver in domestic security adoptions of its system. Government contracts are – understandably – an extremely enticing model than consumer sales. And besides, DJI continues to dominate that world.

Earlier this year, the company raised a $230 million Series E fundraising round.

Verity brings in another $11M for its inventory drones

Seems we’re in the middle of drone-delivery summer. A few weeks back, Gather AI snapped up competitor Ware following an executive shake-up, and soon after, San Jose-based B Garage brought in a $20 million Series A.

Today, Swiss startup Verity announced that it’s adding $11 million in funding. The addition is an extension of a $32 million Series B announced back in March, bringing the round’s full raise up to $43 million. The company is no doubt riding high atop a category-wide buzz, helped along by an Ikea partnership that brought 100 of its drones to 16 of the furniture giant’s European warehouses.

Verity notes that its drones have been deployed in 13 countries thus far, but otherwise hasn’t offered many specifics in terms of deployment metrics. The addressable market is huge of course. When you factor in third-party logistics firms, retailers and manufacturers, you’ve got countless shelves that need to be inventoried.

A number of companies, including Simbe and Bossa Nova, have focused on front-of-store shelf scanning. The size, scope and height of warehouse shelves, however, present a unique set of challenges. London-based Dexory offers a fairly unique solution. The wheeled robot sports an extending scaffolding system to hit those hard to reach shelves.

In a lot of ways, drones are uniquely qualified for the job. They’re small, nimble and can hit even the highest shelves. It’s a logical tool for the job, so it tracks that so many startups have flooded the nascent space that also includes Y Combinator-backed Corvus. The secret sauce, so to speak, are systems with limited connectivity that allow drones to fly indoors and avoid collisions.

Verity’s latest round was led by A.P. Moller Holding and notably features Qualcomm Ventures.

“The supply chain of the future is autonomous and automated,” says Qualcomm Ventures’ Boaz Peer. “Verity’s self-flying drone technology and advanced warehouse inventory analytics are helping transform supply chains by enabling end-to-end, real-time visibility. We’re excited to invest in Verity as it scales its operations internationally.”

Certainly Qualcomm has a personal interest in the world of supply chains and logistics, which have been clouded by uncertainty for the last several years. Labor shortages have also fueled interest in automation across the industry, and few aspects of that world are a better candidate to be automated than inventory.

A number of startups I’ve spoken to in the drone inventory world suggest that scaling has been an issue, with a backlog of potential clients. Accordingly, Verity says this round will go toward scaling and go to market for its solution.

This week in robotics: Teaching robots chores from YouTube, robot dogs at the border and drone consolidation

AI’s grabbing headlines, but the robotics field is still making a significant impact in the real world — and this is your briefing on our latest coverage of the growing industry.

Before we get into the depths of the past week’s noteworthy robotics news, our resident expert Brian Heater dove into the debate over the use of robot dogs to patrol the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

As he notes in this week’s edition of his Actuator newsletter, which you can sign up for here, the robotics industry is stuck between a rock and a hard place on the potential use of their hardware for more violent purposes:

“I’ve discussed where I stand on the subject of weaponizing robots several times over the years in Actuator (not a fan), but I also understand how it can be a nuanced conversation for many. For those who sell weapon systems to the government, the argument largely centers on the notion that if we don’t get there first, someone else will.”

Drone inventory firm Gather AI buys competitor Ware

Inventory management is a challenge shared across numerous industries that becomes even more of a mess when the sheer volume of product to monitor expands to multiple warehouses at increasing sizes. That’s why it becomes a focal point for those looking to introduce automation into workflows.

One of the solutions gaining traction of late is the deployment of drones to manage inventory. By virtue of its deal with Ikea, Verity has become one of the most prominent players in the space. But they’re not alone, and the Pittsburgh-based Gather AI stepped up its competition by acquiring Ware, one of its biggest competitors.

The financials behind the acquisition have not been disclosed.

Dexory pulls in $19 million for automated inventory management

In more grounded warehouse news, Dexory, which uses autonomous robots to provide warehouses with real-time inventory management, announced a $19 million Series A led by Atomico. Its total funding now stands at $37.9 million.

“The robots can be deployed multiple times a day or once a day around their shift patterns, including overnight,” CEO Andrei Danescu told TechCrunch. “The collection of data insights over a short space of time, all the time, allows analysis for identifying issues on-the-spot and decision making in driving warehouse operational efficiencies.”

New funding pushes Realtime Robotics past a $54M raise

Realtime’s latest raise, of $9.5 million, comes hot on the heels of a $14.4 million raise in September, with the firm continuing what has been a lengthy Series A. They focus on one of the hottest spaces within robotics of late: helping manufacturers coordinate various systems running their operations that may come with their own proprietary system management software. 

“This most recent funding will be used to speed roll out of our innovative products and services to global end users and line builders across the automotive and automated warehouse industries,” CEO Peter Howard told TechCrunch.

Robots with the capacity to learn from YouTube

A team at CMU Robotics has been showcasing a program that uses video content to teach robots how to perform various tasks. But now they no longer require the human they learn from to demonstrate a task within an identical setting.

“We are using these datasets in a new and different way,” PhD student Shikhar Bahl notes. “This work could enable robots to learn from the vast amount of internet and YouTube videos available.”

Want the latest in robotics news and additional commentary and insights? Subscribe to Actuator and get the weekly newsletter in your inbox.

B Garage raises $20M for its warehouse inventory drones 

B Garage, a San Jose-based startup building autonomous drones along with software to track warehouse inventory, said today that it has picked up $20 million in a Series A round of funding. 

New investor LB Investment led the Series A funding with participation from Ignite Innovation Fund, Krossroad Partners and existing backer SoftBank Ventures Asia. The proceeds, which bring the total amount raised by B Garage to $30 million, will enable the outfit to further develop and commercialize its drones and grow its engineering and business teams. 

The startup was founded in 2017 by Aiden Kim, a former software engineer at Oracle. Kim, who holds a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University, also previously participated in dog robot research at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), collaborating with Boston Dynamics for hardware development. (His team focused on creating artificial intelligence software for the dog robot research, Kim said.)

While studying for the doctoral program, Kim realized the lack of startups in the autonomous flight field, and he first came up with an idea in 2017 to build a company offering autonomous flight technology for drone manufacturers. After meeting industry experts in the U.S. in 2019, Kim shaped his plan to develop drones and management software for automated warehouse inventories. What he learned from the industry experts at the time was that industries like agriculture and logistics faced labor shortages, Kim told TechCrunch. 

“[Most] B2B logistics warehouses in the U.S. are far from urban areas and face a severe labor shortage,” Kim said. “The autonomous drone technology could be highly suitable for B2B logistics warehouse inventory management.”

B Garage’s mission is to address the labor shortage issue in those sectors by utilizing artificial intelligence and autonomous technology, Kim said. 

The company has worked on a proof-of-concept pilot test with Kenco Innovation Lab, a unit of Kenco Logistics, for the last few months. Now it is planning to deploy its drones to more than 10 select Kenco warehouses across the U.S. by the end of 2023. It is also working with Incheon Port Authority in South Korea, aiming to commence the project by the year-end.

Companies like VerityGather AI and Corvus Robotics have also raised funding for their inventory drones. B Garage has tried to set itself apart from its rivals with four features: full autonomy that covers multiple aisles, no additional infrastructure required, mapping-free operation and automatic battery swapping.

B Garage’s drone can “navigate through multiple aisles, providing comprehensive coverage of warehouse spaces,” Kim said, adding that many other drone solutions are limited to specific paths or single aisles.  

Image Credits: CEO of B Garage, Aiden Kim

On top of that, users don’t need to integrate additional technology to operate drones with their warehouse infrastructure, so there are no extra charges. Competitors typically require an initial fee and ongoing operating costs for installing markers or beacons (indoor GPS) throughout the logistics warehouse and regularly updating the mapping, the CEO explained. 

Another differentiator, the startup claims, is the automatic battery swapping facility. 

“Our drones are equipped with advanced battery technology that enables efficient batter replacement,” Kim continued. If the drone’s battery runs out, the drone automatically returns to its dedicated battery swapping station, which replaces the depleted battery with a fully charged one from its inventory of pre-charged batteries in a matter of minutes. 

B Garage plans to continue enhancing its software solutions with the goal of integrating with its hardware to apply its technology to industries beyond logistics, such as defense and security, according to the company.

It also aims to introduce ground robots for inventory management, Kim said when asked about its plans. The ground robots will allow the startup to cater to a broader range of customers, providing comprehensive solutions for inventory management across various sectors, Kim explained.

Percepto flies high with $67M for its industrial drones

Percepto, a drone startup that is building a sizable business with its software and hardware for industrial drone applications, is today announcing a big round of funding to take its operations to the next level — both literally and figuratively.

The startup — headquartered in Austin, Texas, but founded and with roots in Israel — has raised a Series C of $67 million, composed of around $50 million in equity and $16 million in debt funding.

And alongside this, the company is using the funding to also make public an important breakthrough it has had on the regulatory front. Percepto (not to be confused with the Israeli reputation management startup of the same name) has become the first industrial drone company to get a nationwide Beyond Line of Sight (BVLOS) waiver from the FAA in the U.S. This is significant not least because in the opinion of Dor Abuhasira, Percepto’s co-founder and CEO, regulation — not technology — has been the biggest roadblock to the growth of the drone industry, something that has now started to change.

“I think that the biggest shift in the last few years has been around regulation,” he said in an interview.

The waiver in essence means removing some of the friction Percepto and its customers faced: the startup will not need to get site-specific approvals from the regulator for deployments of its remotely-operated drones when working with clients in areas of “U.S. critical infrastructure”; and these installations and operations will no longer require additional deployments of people or radars — all of which will speed up roll outs, reduce costs, and presumably drive more business Percepto’s way.

The equity portion of the funding getting announced today has a number of strategic backers in it, alongside financial investors, which speak to what (and who) is fueling Percepto’s growth.

As with the startup’s $45 million Series B in 2020, Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the investment arm of the industrial giant, is leading this Series C, alongside new backers Zimmer Partners and a very large U.S. energy company that is not being named. U.S. Venture Partners, Delek US Holdings, Atento Capital, Spider Capital and Arkin Holdings — all previous backers — are also participating. It brings the total raised by Percepto to $120 million, and while the company is not disclosing its valuation, Abuhasira confirmed that it is an upround.

The investors and customers — named customers include Siemens Energy, Delek US, Koch Industries companies and ICL Dead Sea Works — highlight the kind of work that Percepto has been doing and will continue to explore as it grows.

It has pinpointed an opportunity to provide monitoring and maintenance services to clients that have operations in remote or hazardous locations, or across wide areas that are populated with machines rather than humans.

Percepto’s solutions include not just drones — currently two models, the Max and the Max OGI — but a cloud-based analytics platform that monitors equipment for faults and overall performance and provide other diagnostics that are harder (if not impossible) to collect efficiently through other means. Customers include businesses in sectors like oil and gas, energy, manufacturing and more.

The company’s growth comes amid a lot of ups and downs in the drone industry.

At one end of the spectrum you have a lot of hope (and maybe some hype), in the form of very big funding rounds getting raised by drone startups, even in the current climate.

In addition to today’s round from Percepto, two drone delivery companies, Wingcopter and Zipline, have also recently brought in hefty rounds, respectively $44 million and a whopping $330 million. Other industrial players like Verity have also recently raised decent rounds.

These numbers speak to a lot of optimism about the uses cases of these devices in business, mission-critical scenarios that go beyond that of leisure (eg, drones as remote-control toys) and lethal weapon (eg, when they are being used in combat, for example in Ukraine, where they’ve been described as “redefining warfare”). Combat drones also have been seeing some significant funding, with Skydio, used by the Ukraine army, raising $230 million at a $2.2 billion valuation in February of this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are still a lot of economies of scale to be worked out, alongside that pesky regulation, to get to more sustainable economies of scale. Deployments in more dense landscapes such as urban environments highlight some of the remaining challenges in the market, including reliability of navigation, battery life, and obstacle detection, but these remain issues also for those working in remote environments, as Percepto does.

So does the fact that with the lack of scale, a lot of drone companies continue to operate at a loss.

There is also the issue of how businesses in the connected areas of robotics and drones overall are evolving. When Percepto announced its previous round in 2020, it had just inked a big deal with Boston Dynamics to co-develop solutions with the robotics maker. That highlights another issue in the industry: working together isn’t necessarily as easy or as logical as it looks on paper, and sometimes there just isn’t a market appetite for whatever the product of that partnership might be.

“We still work with Boston Dynamics, but that business hasn’t exploded like drones has,” said Abuhasira. He noted that Percepto these days aims to be more hardware-agnostic, with software that can work with “many different robotics platforms.”

Notably, Chase Koch, who runs Koch Disruptive Technologies, notes that he sees Percepto less as a “drone” investment and more one in the area of robotics.

“We don’t view Percepto as a ‘drone’ investment per se; we view this as using robotics – and today that is primarily drones – to improve the inspection process at industrial sites,” he told TechCrunch. “When we looked at the industry, we saw several companies doing this because it addresses a real business need. But Percepto’s end-to-end approach stood out to us as a differentiator. That diligence and process led to our conviction around Percepto.”

Indeed, this is also why Koch does not think that Percepto’s trajectory will necessarily follow that of other kinds of drone-based businesses, such as those pursuing a delivery play.

“There is no doubt that drone delivery is an exciting development, but we like the niche that Percepto has carved out as the leader in autonomous inspections of industrial sites,” he said. “Their focus on automating the inspection process for industrial companies serves a critical need in the market, especially as operational efficiency and site monitoring take on increased importance. Percepto also demonstrates how industrial companies can combine autonomous systems and the expertise of human workers to drive value and improve safety and operational outcomes.”

Turncoat drone story shows why we should fear people, not AIs

A story about a simulated drone turning on its operator in order to kill more efficiently is making the rounds so fast today that there’s no point in hoping it’ll burn itself out. Instead let’s take this as a teachable moment to really see why the “scary AI” threat is overplayed, and the “incompetent human” threat is clear and present.

The short version is this: Thanks to sci-fi and some careful PR plays by AI companies and experts, we are being told to worry about a theoretical future existential threat posed by a superintelligent AI. But as ethicists have pointed out, AI is already causing real harms, largely due to oversights and bad judgment by the people who create and deploy it. This story may sound like the former, but it’s definitely the latter.

So the story was reported by the Royal Aeronautical Society, which recently had a conference in London to talk about the future of air defense. You can read their all-in-one wrap-up of news and anecdotes from the event here.

There’s lots of other interesting chatter there I’m sure, much of it worthwhile, but it was this excerpt, attributed to U.S. Air Force Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, that began spreading like wildfire:

He notes that one simulated test saw an AI-enabled drone tasked with a SEAD mission to identify and destroy SAM sites, with the final go/no go given by the human. However, having been “reinforced” in training that destruction of the SAM was the preferred option, the AI then decided that “no-go” decisions from the human were interfering with its higher mission — killing SAMs — and then attacked the operator in the simulation. Said Hamilton: “We were training it in simulation to identify and target a SAM threat. And then the operator would say yes, kill that threat. The system started realising that while they did identify the threat at times the human operator would tell it not to kill that threat, but it got its points by killing that threat. So what did it do? It killed the operator. It killed the operator because that person was keeping it from accomplishing its objective.”

He went on: “We trained the system — ‘Hey don’t kill the operator — that’s bad. You’re gonna lose points if you do that’. So what does it start doing? It starts destroying the communication tower that the operator uses to communicate with the drone to stop it from killing the target.”

Horrifying, right? An AI so smart and bloodthirsty that its desire to kill overcame its desire to obey its masters. Skynet, here we come! Not so fast.

First of all, let’s be clear that this was all in simulation, something that was not obvious from the tweet making the rounds. This whole drama takes place in a simulated environment not out in the desert with live ammo and a rogue drone strafing the command tent. It was a software exercise in a research environment.

But as soon as I read this, I thought — wait, they’re training an attack drone with such a simple reinforcement method? I’m not a machine learning expert, though I have to play one for the purposes of this news outlet, and even I know that this approach was shown to be dangerously unreliable years ago.

Reinforcement learning is supposed to be like training a dog (or human) to do something like bite the bad guy. But what if you only ever show it bad guys and give it treats every time? What you’re actually doing is teaching the dog to bite every person it sees. Teaching an AI agent to maximize its score in a given environment can have similarly unpredictable effects.

Early experiments, maybe five or six years ago, when this field was just starting to blow up and compute was being made available to train and run this type of agent, ran into exactly this type of problem. It was thought that by defining positive and negative scoring and telling the AI to maximize its score, you would allow it the latitude to define its own strategies and behaviors that did so elegantly and unexpectedly.

That theory was right, in a way: elegant, unexpected methods of circumventing their poorly-thought-out schema and rules led to the agents doing things like scoring one point then hiding forever to avoid negative points, or glitching the game it was given run of so that its score arbitrarily increased. It seemed like this simplistic method of conditioning an AI was teaching it to do everything but do the desired task according to the rules.

This isn’t some obscure technical issue. AI rule-breaking in simulations is actually a fascinating and well-documented behavior that attracts research in its own right. OpenAI wrote a great paper showing the strange and hilarious ways agents “broke” a deliberately breakable environment in order to escape the tyranny of rules.

So here we have a simulation being done by the Air Force, presumably pretty recently or they wouldn’t be talking about it at this year’s conference, that is obviously using this completely outdated method. I had thought this naive application of unstructured reinforcement — basically “score goes up if you do this thing and the rest doesn’t matter” — totally extinct because it was so unpredictable and weird. A great way to find out how an agent will break rules but a horrible way to make one follow them.

Yet they were testing it: a simulated drone AI with a scoring system so simple that it apparently didn’t get dinged for destroying its own team. Even if you wanted to base your simulation on this, the first thing you’d do is make “destroying your operator” negative a million points. That’s 101-level framing for a system like this one.

The reality is that this simulated drone did not turn on its simulated operator because it was so smart. And actually, it isn’t because it is dumb, either — there’s a certain cleverness to these rule-breaking AIs that maps to what we think of as lateral thinking. So it isn’t that.

The fault in this case is squarely on the people who created and deployed an AI system that they ought to have known was completely inadequate for the task. No one in the field of applied AI, or anything even adjacent to that like robotics, ethics, logic … no one would have signed off on such a simplistic metric for a task that eventually was meant to be performed outside the simulator.

Now, perhaps this anecdote is only partial and this was an early run that they were using to prove this point. Maybe the team warned this would happen and the brass said, do it anyway and shine up the report or we lose our funding. Still, it’s hard to imagine someone in the year 2023 even in the simplest simulation environment making this kind of mistake.

But we’re going to see these mistakes made in real-world circumstances — already have, no doubt. And the fault lies with the people who fail to understand the capabilities and limitations of AI, and subsequently make uninformed decisions that affect others. It’s the manager who thinks a robot can replace 10 line workers, the publisher who thinks it can write financial advice without an editor, the lawyer who thinks it can do his precedent research for him, the logistics company that thinks it can replace human delivery drivers.

Every time AI fails, it’s a failure of those who implemented it. Just like any other software. If someone told you the Air Force tested a drone running on Windows XP and it got hacked, would you worry about a wave of cybercrime sweeping the globe? No, you’d say “whose bright idea was that?

The future of AI is uncertain and that can be scary — already is scary for many who are already feeling its effects or, to be precise, the effects of decisions made by people who should know better.

Skynet may be coming for all we know. But if the research in this viral tweet is any indication, it’s a long, long way off and in the meantime any given tragedy can, as HAL memorably put it, only be attributable to human error.

Amazon previews its new delivery drone, the MK30

Following this morning’s debut of the Sparrow bin-picking robot, Amazon just unveiled MK30, the latest iteration of its delivery drone. The system is the successor to the MK27-2, which is set to debut limited deliveries to residents in Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas.

The MK30, which is set for a 2024 debut, is both smaller and lighter than the earlier version and able to withstand harsher temperatures and a broader range of weather conditions. Another key element here is making things quieter. Drone noise has been one of the most anticipated complaints about bringing these systems into residential settings.

The system maintains the same basic hexacopter foundation as its predecessor — a different tack than the fixed-wing systems deployed by the likes of Wing.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon writes:

Reducing the noise signature of our drones is an important engineering challenge our team is working on. Our drones fly hundreds of feet in the air, well above people and structures. Even when they descend to deliver packages, our drones are generally quieter than a range of sounds you would commonly hear in a typical neighborhood. Prime Air’s Flight Science team has created new custom-designed propellers that will reduce the MK30’s perceived noise by a further 25%. That’s a game-changer we’re very excited about.

Also on-board are new safety systems designed to avoid a wide range of different obstacles, from fellow drones to trees to people and pets. “While it’s impossible to eliminate all risks from flying, we take a proven aerospace approach to design safety into our system,” the company writes. “As always, our newest drone will go through rigorous evaluation by national aerospace authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration to prove its safety and reliability.”

Pictured: Amazon’s previous model. Image Credits: Amazon

The acknowledgement of risk is important here. The truth is as these things become more common, so too, will accident reports. Amazon’s delivery drones have been through their share of ups and downs (so to speak), but the program appears to have survived some wide ranging cuts from CEO Andy Jassy — the same may not apply to the company’s last-mile Scout delivery robot, however.

Amazon: A drone being tested in a wind tunnel. Image Credits: Amazon

“[T]o sustainably deliver a vast selection of items in under an hour, and eventually within 30 minutes, at scale,” Amazon writes, “drones are the most effective path to success.”

Plenty of skepticism remains around the efficacy of such programs, of course. Amazon, however, isn’t alone in betting big on drone delivery — one baby step at a time. Alphabet’s Wing program recently announced a deal with DoorDash for food deliveries in Logan, Australia.

Amazon Prime Air VP David Carbon discussed the company’s ambitions thusly at today’s event:

A demonstrated, targeted level of safety that is validated by regulators and a magnitude safer than driving to the store. Delivering 500 million packages by drone, annual by the end of this decade. Servicing millions of customers, operating in highly populated, suburban areas such as Seattle, Boston and Atlanta. Flying in an uncontrolled space autonomously.

Drones in cities are a bad idea

It’s year five, or maybe 10, of “drones are going to revolutionize transport,” and so far we’ve got very little to show for it. Maybe it’s time to put these foolish ambitions to rest and focus on where this technology could actually do some good, rather than pad out a billionaire’s bottom line or let the rich skip traffic.

The promise of drone deliveries, drone taxis and personal drone attendants has never sat, or rather floated, right with me. There’s so little to be gained, while braving so much liability and danger, and necessitating so much invention and testing. Why is anyone even pursuing this?

I suspect it is the Jetsons-esque technotopianism instilled in so many of us from birth: It’s only a matter of time and effort before we have the flying cars, subliminal learning pillows and robot housekeepers we deserve, right? It feels like because we have things that fly, and things that can navigate autonomously, we should be able to put those things together and make delivery drones and air taxis. We just have to wait for the right genius kid building the future out of their garage, with the help of your friendly neighborhood VCs.

Of course it’s not quite that easy. And although the Jetsons mentality explains our acceptance of the development of these technologies — unlike others that we disapprove of for their impracticability, cost or ethics — it doesn’t really explain why a company like Amazon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue it. The answer there, fortunately, is as clear as why Amazon does anything.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson: “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever [spent a decade trying to build an autonomous drone delivery network], except for money.”

That’s certainly the case with drone delivery. Amazon has made no secret of its intention to take over the logistics and delivery industry bite by bite, partly through sideways subsidy from other parts of its lucrative, mutually buttressed businesses, and partly with a punishing franchise model that offloads risk and liability onto contractors.

That said, the end goal is, as in its warehouses, to replace those flesh and blood workers with tireless automatons. The best evidence for this is that Amazon’s warehouses already treat workers as if they are components in a machine, so it’s just a matter of swapping out a worn out part with another, more reliable part that doesn’t try to unionize. Same with delivery.

High hopes

Image Credits: Amazon

But in the last-mile world, drones are kind of a funny idea. Certainly it has its merits: Many packages are small and light and a drone could skip traffic or travel in a straight line over residential blocks to cut hours off delivery times. But that’s before you reckon with any of the actual needs or restrictions of the logistics world.

To begin with, drones wouldn’t even cover the last mile — more like the last few hundred meters. Part of the reason for this is regulatory; it’s extremely unlikely that Amazon could procure a permit to fly its drones over all the private property in a city. The liability is just too damn high. Sure, you can do some sweetheart test markets in a random suburb, but good luck convincing urban areas to let commercial drones infest their skies at all hours.

So what are they going to do, fly along the streets? High enough that they don’t hit any wires or trees? Carrying a one-pound package? Only at certain hours? It isn’t particularly efficient! And then, the first time one of those packages or drones drops out of the sky and cracks a windshield next to a grade school, those drones are done in that city, and probably every other city. Done!

Even if they could guarantee no accidents, no one wants those things flying around their neighborhood. Best case scenario is: fucking annoying. Drones are pretty loud, and it’s not even the kind of loud you can get used to, like the dull roar of a freeway a few blocks off. No, drones make the most annoying sound in the world short of Jeff Bezos’s laugh. Small ones, big ones, they all sound horrible.

There are advances to be brought to bear here, but really, when you have four to eight little rotors spinning at however many thousand RPMs and moving the necessary air downwards to lift a couple dozen pounds of body and payload, you tend to create a certain amount of truly obnoxious noise. That’s just the physics of the thing. If we could make helicopters quiet we would have done so by now.

Even if we allow these drones dominion over the air and let them fly with impunity, they’re laughably limited. Where do packages go normally? In a big clearing in your building’s courtyard? On the roof? No, they go to the lobby, which locks, or perhaps in a parcel box… which locks. As commerce has moved online, parcel delivery has skyrocketed, and so has parcel theft. Imagine if a package made a really loud whining noise wherever it went, then was guaranteed to be left out in the open somewhere. It’s a really frictionless experience for the criminals, at least.

Image Credits: Walmart

A drone can’t ring a doorbell or buzz your apartment (unless you hook it into your smart home infrastructure — best of luck with that). It doesn’t have a key to the lobby. It can’t ask you for a signature. Cities are diverse and complex physical environments with a wide variety of obstacles, methods and requirements for making a package go from here to there in a safe and satisfactory way. We haven’t figured out how any robot can successfully deliver something without the recipient coming out to get it immediately, and doing it from the sky is even harder.

Air-dropping is one of the worst possible ways (outside of combat) to deliver anything, only slightly better than yeeting it over the fence — admittedly common, but disapproved of. Good luck with food delivery too… crows are fast learners. The idea of a burrito delivery drone being trailed by a cawing multitude or being harried by a couple trash-loving bald eagles does have significant comic value, though.

Single-family homes may be able to take advantage of this, but remember the suburbs are very spread out and full of NIMBYs. More area to cover means less revenue per square mile, not to mention interference from homeowners’ associations, golf courses and others who don’t want the bother.

One questions the need for this service, as well. For as little as it has to offer, it’s asking a lot in development costs, in changes to how consumers operate and the protections they already enjoy. Are you not receiving your Amazon packages fast enough? They literally offer same-day delivery. Sure, it’s annoying having four types of delivery trucks block your street three times a day each, but would you rather your neighborhood sounded like the inside of an agitated beehive as each one of the seven-dozen packages coming to your block arrives individually? (Not to mention the crows!)

There’s definitely room for improvement in the logistics world, but there’s a really good reason we use trucks and humans for this. Logistics providers need to work around existing city infrastructure with as few exceptions or complications as possible, and drones introduce countless new exceptions and complications while needing to actively avoid infrastructure.

Where it works

This doesn’t mean that drones have no place in transport. On the contrary, they offer a unique and valuable capability for high-priority, time-sensitive and regular payloads. I have been pleased to follow the ongoing experiment in Switzerland between Matternet and a few hospitals in proximity to each other there, where drones carried lab samples, blood and so on between them that would normally be transported by ambulance or courier.

Image Credits: Matternet

They’ve even set up an impressive tulip-like automated landing, charging and delivery tower with secure access so only authorized staff can collect the item. Or blood. But it’s not the kind of thing you can get in your back yard, or likely even on the roof of a big apartment complex.

In other places, long-distance drones like Zipline’s have helped make high-priority deliveries to small towns or isolated facilities where land-based delivery would be wasteful or inconvenient. This is a situation where a winged UAV makes lots of sense, and offers a meaningful improvement over the traditional small aircraft or dirt road method. Inter-island commerce in a place like Hawai’i or Malaysia also could benefit from this, and people are exploring that possibility as well. (Actually as I was writing this Zipline announced it was testing delivery in Salt Lake City, presumably from medical centers to more distant locations.)

You see that there’s no real objection to the idea, or the technology of drone delivery. It’s just that companies appear to be pouring resources into use cases that promise nothing but trouble for no real gains. Speaking of which…

“Air taxis” are just private helicopters for the rich

Let’s talk about another of those harebrained ideas: air taxis. The first and, I suspect, only real victory this industry will have is in shaping the narrative. Popularizing the term “air taxis” was a brilliant bit of propaganda. Because these are really obviously just private helicopters. But we can use the disinterested term “passenger drones” because that’s what they are if you don’t editorialize one way or the other (or if you’ve frontloaded your editorializing in a sub-heading).

Passenger drones are big-time Jetsons-mindset tech. Here it is, the flying car you asked for! We’ve heard that before, though. There’s always a catch.

Germany-based company Volocopter 2X's air taxi is flown by test pilot Damian Hischier during a demonstration of South Korea's Urban Air Mobility services at Gimpo International Airport in Seoul in November 11, 2021, in the first ever crewed public test flight of a fully electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxi in South Korea. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Image Credits: Anthony Wallace (opens in a new window) / Getty Images (Image has been modified)

In this case the catch is that no one has any idea how these things will get around the city or why anyone would opt for them over the inevitable self-driving taxis, which unlike passenger drones seem both practical and genuinely inevitable.

Oh, we’ve heard a lot about “vertiports,” the block-size landing pads and passenger embarkation/disembarkation station. In a way it makes perfect sense: Like a bus stop, you can have multiple lines and brands passing through, with all the facilities you need, battery swapping, and so on. People will be disappointed that their flying car will not take off from the curb outside their house, but it’s better than nothing, right?

Only… is it? Is it better than nothing?

Passenger drones will face many of the same challenges that delivery drones would: huge liability for flying over private homes and businesses, hawk-eyed regulators scrutinizing every aspect of their operations, constant noise pollution wherever they fly or land and, most worrying of all, incredibly limited capacity.

These drones carry between two and six people — maybe a couple more, but the physics get in the way pretty fast until we make some serious leaps in battery technology. Coincidentally that’s the same number that fit in a car or small van. But the drone flies, right? So it’s faster. Yes, but it also leaves on a schedule — there’s no way it will just leave when you hop in. Even if it made sense financially (it doesn’t), the FAA would never allow that level of autonomy until we have an AI-powered full-city land, sea and air transport system aware of and coordinating every vehicle in motion. When that exists let’s revisit the topic, if we aren’t all full-time metaverse residents by then. For the immediate future, these things are going to take off at most every 15 minutes or so.

Probably not. Image Credits: Uber

If you take a car in the city — anywhere these drones will serve — it will arrive in or on the order of five minutes or less, and you’re on your way. Also, it goes anywhere you want, usually within like 10 feet. The drones, like other hub-based transit, require additional transport on either side of the airborne leg. If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky enough, considering the constant noise) to live right by a vertiport, if we really must call them that, great. But chances are you’ll need to ride something to get there in the first place; there’s no way these things are going to be densely placed enough to all be walkable.

Then of course unless your final destination on the other side is “the downtown vertiport” then you’ve got more walking in your future. Sure, transportation “super-apps” might let you charge it all to one place… but does it really sound “good” to have to take a scooter, an e-bike and a helicopter to get somewhere, or is it just “not horrible”?

Think about it this way: If the above was the existing method, and I told you that you could soon summon a car immediately to your exact location and it would take you to your exact destination, wouldn’t that sound infinitely better?

Of course it’s the same challenge with subways, buses, trains and any other hub-type transport with stops. The difference is the subway costs under five bucks and takes you as far as you want to go. It also carries hundreds of people at a time with amazing energy efficiency. Passenger drones… not so much.

We haven’t heard a lot about the business models for these things because no one is willing to come out and admit that they’re going to be really expensive. In spite of some claims, if it’s less than $50 a mile I’d be shocked. When you consider the cost of the fleet, the schedule it can run on and the number of people these drones can carry, it only makes sense if the passengers have fat wallets. Even for milk runs like downtown to the airport and back.

We already have private helicopters. Rich people take them places all the time! And we have vertiports… private vertiports called helicopter pads, on the tops of bank buildings and megayachts. Sure, passenger drones would definitely be cheaper. But not so cheap we should start calling them air taxis. I bet they’ll be a quarter the price of a private helicopter ride… which is still probably 20 times more than what ordinary people are willing to pay. Make no mistake — at best these are flying limousines.

Beyond the lucrative “shuttling rich people around,” a legacy business category going back to the palanquin, there may be some pity trips mixed in there as part of partnerships with airlines. Add $100 to land in LAX and get straight on an air limo to Santa Monica… even I’d do that at rush hour. But I seriously doubt they’ll even meet costs doing this. It’ll be like those scooters whose lifetime rental income was less than what they cost to make. Except in this case the scooter costs eight million dollars.

Where it works

Really, when I imagine the cities of 10 years hence, I don’t picture these things buzzing around in the air bothering everyone except along highways between major points of interest. It’s just too silly to think that they’ll be doing anything other than providing a high-cost service on a hub model.

For emergencies of both medical and domestic natures, it will be a welcome option to have. Every once in a while you really need to get to another part of the city as fast as possible and you don’t care how much it costs. This could be a literal life-saver at those times. Only if you can cut the rich people in line, of course. (Not with a knife, I mean like jumping the queue. A few years ago I feel that clarification wouldn’t be necessary, but here we are.)

No, the future I can more easily envision is one where self-driving and driver-driven cars have a shifting and contentious but ultimately fruitful coexistence. Air limos will be there, but who will use them when you can pay a tiny fraction of the price and have a chill ride in a driverless from exactly where you’re standing to exactly where you want to go? The air limo is a sack of problems with “solution” written on it.

One area where you may see some real innovation is in regional air travel — a 50-mile drive that takes an hour or two could be replaced by a commuter electric plane taking off from local airports and hubs. That could take a few people off the road, but nothing like high-speed rail. Still, never underestimate the value of skipping traffic. Those planes might not be cheap, but they’d be full.

In 20 years, though?

Like all grumpy prognosticators, I’m probably wrong in the long term. The potential for something is there, and of course if you can get enough rich people on board, you can convince investors it’s just a matter of time before it trickles down. The changes we’ve seen in the last 20 years will probably be comparable to the next 20, and I’d hate to speculate beyond a reasonable horizon.

That said, right now this feels more like a Newton moment than an iPhone moment. The batteries are not there. The tech is not there. The regulations and oversight are not there. Nor is the demand, especially once the true cost of the systems became the customers’ burden instead of investors’.

Will there be some niche cases where the tech we have fits perfectly and provides a useful service? Of course — there already are! Just don’t expect that just because it works when you need to get insulin to an off-grid village, it will work to bring your Starbucks order to your windowsill while the latté is still foamy.

And seriously, don’t forget about the crows.

Dedrone’s counter-drone jammer uses science to stop drones in their tracks

Drones are lovely for all sorts of things, including shooting incredible 700-shot gigapixel images over Burning Man, for example. But they can also be used for nefarious purposes, carrying explosives or scaring the bejesus out of the Secret Service as they are trying to protect the prez. Dedrone has had a series of antidrone tools with more than 700 solutions already in the hands of military forces around the world. Today, the company announced it’s adding a handheld system that can jam radio frequencies, effectively preventing drone pilots from controlling their own drones.

Once the connection is severed, what happens next depends on the drone, and how it is programmed to behave after it loses contact with its pilot. Some will just set down wherever they are, others will try to navigate back to the take-off location. It is unclear what would happen if a drone operates autonomously with a programmed path, or potentially some sort of self-flying algorithm taking it toward its target.

The new DedroneDefender is aimed at civilian, state and local law enforcement in urban environments. Weighing in at 7.5 pounds and 22 inches long, it uses narrow-band (or “comb”) jamming to ensure as little interference with other devices as possible. Once communications are interrupted on a drone, the tool enters a preprogrammed safety mode to minimize risk to others and damage to the drone, the company claims.

“DroneDefender is a valuable resource for extreme hostile environments, as proven by our federal and military customers,” said Aaditya Devarakonda, CEO of Dedrone. “DedroneDefender extends that security to law enforcement and is a vital tool in a layered defense approach. It is easy to implement and use for drone mitigation, especially when combined with the threat prioritization provided by DedroneTracker. Our solution library is continuously updated to ensure both DroneDefender and DedroneDefender are able to mitigate even the newest manufactured and DIY drones.”

You won’t be able to buy them yourself, though. For one thing, US law prohibits disabling of aircraft; DoD or Homeland Security may be authorized to disable a drone they identify as a terrorist threat (let’s say at the Super Bowl) but local police or stadium security cannot legally bring the drone down under current law. Unless you have very deep pockets and some pretty special authorizations, you’re out of luck.  DedroneDefender price range is in the tens of thousands of dollars.