Hardware is the New Software: An Interview with Chris Anderson

By July 8, 2013No Comments

Pioneers met up with Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and Founder of at his Berkley Office.

Atoms are the new bits”, says Chris Anderson. Hardware started to take along similar dynamics as software: low barriers to entry, web-based open innovation models, cloud manufacturing which basically democratized the biggest industry in the world – manufacturing.

Makers: the web generation making real stuff

Pioneers: The Makers Movement – how big can the whole space get?

Anderson: It depends on how you define it. I define the maker movement as being the web generation making real stuff. It’s basically digital, it’s online, it’s community based. It has that web culture but it’s applied to physical stuff: 3D printers, CNC Machines, Laser Cutters, 3D Scanners, Electronics and Arduino, Raspberry Pi and all that stuff. So it’s a set of tools that allowed the web generation to start using the same mechanisms to make real stuff.

Pioneers: We have seen a lot of software in the last couple of years, but it’s really the hardware stuff that excites people. From what you have seen what are the biggest products in that space?

Anderson: When I got into hardware, I got in through things like Arduino and 3D printers. That’s what excited me and ultimately we ended up going into the direction of electronics and software. We do drones and autopilots. I got started with LEGO and my children. The company got started with my children assembling LEGO pieces on the kitchen table. That was 4 years ago. What happened is that: all the stuff that used to be hard got easy. Software got easy, electronics got easy, platforms got easy, manufacturing operations and tools all got easy – suddenly this stuff became doable.

Pioneers: When was the time you realized Wired is quite cool, but now I have to do 3D Robotics?

Anderson: About a year ago. We [Anderson and Jordi Muñoz] had started a company together but I was non-executive chairman – I had a job, I was editor of a magazine [Wired] and assumed Jordi would continue hand-assembling things, it would be a small little service we would offer. It was the day I went down [to Tijuana] and saw the company owned a forklift, I realized "this is a real company. Real companies have forklifts – wow we must have things to lift".

Note: Jordi was at the time a 19-year-old Mexican high-school student waiting for his Green Card. The two of them met through the Internet and Anderson has described Jordi as the “perfect” match whom he would never have met prior to the web generation

Drones are what personal computers were in the 1970s

Pioneers: Where do you see 3D Robotics going?

Anderson: We started with hackers, makers, DIY, etc. We are doing this to move from “the bag of parts” to “ready to fly” – finished, easy-to-use products. Think of it as moving from the Apple II to the Macintosh – or maybe from the Apple I to the Macintosh. Making Robotics – in our case Aerial Robotics or drones – easy to use.

Right now we have really sophisticated platforms, but they are too hard. As a result they are attracting techies and geeks. It’s our job to make that kind of technology as easy to use as that kind of toy [AR Parrot; the Parrot is not actually a UAV in the sense that it is not autonomous unless you add an autopilot.]

Pioneers: When you deal with drones, they certainly still have a negative connotation to many. As a result, a lot of it must be about education.

Anderson: We have decades of history of taking military technology, democratizing them, making them available to consumers and overall changing the stigma – changing the associations.

Think about [that] the Internet used to be ARPANET; GPS used to be cruise-missile controls.

It is our job to drown out the bad uses of drones with good uses. The way we do it is by putting them in the hands of regular people. When you think of drones as farm equipment or just a way we film children playing sports – "its just a camera that follows you around" – then people forget that they used to be military.

You win with numbers: a thousand stories of drones being used for fun, civilian purposes will eventually drown out the military stories.

Personal versus Commercial Use

Note that commercial drone usage is technically still illegal in the US, the FAA is setting up regulation to officially allow commercial use starting in 2015. Private use is being tolerated today. But once the FAA admits UAVs into U.S. Airspace by 2015, the market is likely to explode. I, for one, cannot wait for the Tacocopter to go commercial.

In all seriousness, this has huge potential – obviously for fields like transportation and cargo delivery. FedEx has already expressed stern interest. As performance specs are rapidly increasing – doubling every nine months in terms of range and freight – we can not even imagine what the entrepreneurial uses for drones will be.

There certainly will be misuses of this technology, but this must not hinder us in pushing forward, for the potential of these – from today’s perspective still-experimental gadgets – is enormous.

What are your thoughts on Robotics, especially UAVs? What are your concerns with safety, how large do you consider the potential of drones to be disruptive to be? What creative endeavors would you like to see this technology being put to use for?

Chris Anderson:
Former Editor-in-Chief WIRED (2001-12)
Author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
CEO of 3D Robotics and Founder of DIY Drones

DYI Drones: a non-profit online community (open source software) – the biggest robotics community in the world with around 36,000 members as of March 2013
3D Robotics: a for-profit hardware manufacturer for drones
– “charge for hardware, give away the bits”

Interview by Juergen, CEO and Co-Founder, Pioneers
Images by Tim, Head of Pioneers Festival