TIME technology

Industry Gathering Aims to Reshape Future of America’s Drone Business

Flying drone with camera
Getty Images

How Robofest—an informal meeting of aerospace industry veterans, government insiders, and Beltway think tankers—aims to reshape the U.S. commercial drone industry

At Robofest, first things first. First there’s the wine, provided courtesy of one of the Washington, D.C. area’s most influential aerospace consultancies. Once you’ve filled your plastic cup—this affair is more backyard barbecue than society event—there’s the meet and greet, an opportunity to check out the credentials of those around you: an aerospace industry executive, the economic development chief for a western U.S. state, a dean of engineering for a prestigious American university, several D.C. think tankers, lobbyists, lawyers. But the very first person you meet is Darryl Jenkins, chairman of the American Aviation Institute, consultant to airlines and aviation companies and host and creator of today’s event.

Jenkins is a well-known personality in the aerospace and aviation realms. He’s been in the room for more or less every major airline merger and bankruptcy restructuring over the past few decades. He’s spent his career lecturing to and on the aerospace industry, having taught for several semesters at George Washington University while publishing countless papers and research reports as well as one book on the industry. He’s the guy that goes on Bloomberg TV and CNBC to explain these things to the world. Jenkins knows a whole lot of influential people in the aviation and aerospace worlds. A lot of those people are here at Robofest today. They, like Jenkins, share a keen interest in the next generation of aerospace technology—the various unmanned aerial systems commonly and collectively known as drones.

It’s a pitch-perfect afternoon in late October when Robofest takes place. The setting is Jenkins’ secluded home in the Shenandoah foothills. This year’s event is the second in two years, already known as an off-the-record social date that is evolving into an industry movement that Jenkins hopes will pave the way forward for the burgeoning commercial drone industry. (Fortune obtained special permission to write about the event.) On the agenda: An open discussion on how to best move the industry forward, and—of course—a bit of drone flying. But first, there’s wine and then lunch. No one wants to reshape an entire industry on an empty stomach.

Last year’s Robofest was mostly a recreational and social affair, Jenkins says. This year—with some of the more influential minds within the industry, state and federal government, and academia all gathered on his back patio—Jenkins wants to do more than just talk about what can be done. The drone industry largely sees itself as hamstrung by an overreaching and underfunded Federal Aviation Administration. The industry believes it is increasingly outgunned by foreign competitors operating in more permissive regulatory environments. Jenkins and his assembled cast of industry veterans, lawyers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, and government insiders want to change that.

“When I think about all the airline mergers and bankruptcies I’ve been through with this industry, I feel like an old man,” Jenkins says, calling his 80 or so guests to order. “When I think about UAS technology, I’m 16 again.” As his guests finish tucking into plates of fried chicken and pasta salad, Jenkins reminds his guests that the point of this gathering is not to sit around throwing rocks at the FAA, an activity that has become an organized sport for advocates of a commercialized drone industry. Today is about hammering out some concrete steps that the industry can take in the near term. It’s about keeping the industry marching forward despite bureaucratic inertia.

Jenkins turns the floor over to his keynote speaker, the former CEO of a major Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company and vocal supporter of the drone industry. His comments set off a spirited discussion about what the industry needs, how it can nudge the FAA in the right direction, and—most importantly—what the industry can do on its own without help from the FAA. (The theme of this year’s Robofest: “Doing it Ourselves.”)

No single voice or interest dominates the discussion. Among those that speak up are academics, former FAA officials, aerospace industry executives, drone entrepreneurs looking to build new companies around UAS technologies and services, local law enforcement, and U.S. intelligence employees. One is a lawyer who specializes in the nascent new practice of drone law. Another represents the newly formed D.C. drone lobby backed by Google and Amazon. There are even realtors interested in using drones for aerial photography, which is currently prohibited by the FAA, and a sailing coach interested in applying drones to maritime sport.

Above all, there is money present. Representatives of a $2.2 billion investment fund aimed specifically at drone infrastructure—such as air traffic control technologies to allow drones to safely operate alongside conventional aircraft in U.S. airspace—weigh in during the discussion. For more than an hour the discussion ping-pongs around Jenkins’ crowded, sun-dappled patio.

There is disagreement but also plenty of consensus. The large drone industry is well represented on Capitol Hill through the defense and aerospace industries, but the small UAS industry—representing aircraft that weigh less than 55 lbs.—needs to better organize and represent itself, the group agrees. Small UAS need size-specific regulations so that a five-pound drone flying at 300 feet is treated differently than a large drone. And most of all, the industry needs to work with the FAA, rather than rail against it—otherwise, little progress will occur.

Jenkins closes the discussion by informing his guests that this will be the last Robofest held at his home. Though it’s only the second such event, it’s already straining the capacity of his generous patio space. Jenkins says he’s working with universities in the D.C. area to formalize and host the next event sometime in early 2016. The plan: bring today’s agenda to a much larger audience. It would be a mistake to wait any longer, he says.

“We’re at an inflection point,” says one self-described serial entrepreneur who launched and sold four technology companies. He’s traveled to Robofest from Michigan to hear what others in the industry have to say and for the chance to swap business cards and make a few new contacts in the industry. Naturally, his latest startup is a drone company, one that would provide drone products and services as well as training and certification for pilots—as soon as standards for such certification are codified by the FAA, that is. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “But the time for this industry is now.”

The sun is getting low now and the breeze has died down—it’s finally time to fly. From car trunks and duffel bags and hard plastic carrying cases, out come the drones—from small quad-rotors to massive eight-armed octo-copters in varying shapes and sizes. The entire gathering looks on as one machine after another rises into the sky. In minutes, everyone is 16 again.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME robotics

Watch the Robots Shipping Your Amazon Order This Holiday

New machines are helping the retail giant get your stuff home on time

Across the country, laborers are hard at work lifting 700-pound shelves full of multivolume encyclopedias, propane grills or garden gnomes and dragging them across vast warehouse floors. Carefully trained not to bump into one another, the squat workers are 320 pounds and a mere 16 inches tall.

No, they’re not Christmas elves—they’re some of the most advanced robots that e-commerce giant Amazon now uses to ship its goods. In an exclusive video for TIME, photographer and videographer Stephen Wilkes captured these Amazon robots in action at the company’s Tracy, Calif., warehouse.

The robots are made by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon purchased for $775 million in 2012 to better handle the hundreds of worldwide orders Amazon customers make every second. Kiva’s robots bring shelves of goods out of storage and carry them to employees, allowing Amazon to retrieve more items for more customers simultaneously. Amazon began using these robots in July of this year, and there are now more than 15,000 of them in 10 of the company’s warehouses. They whir around like gears on a Swiss watch.

Three quarters of a billion dollars may seem like a lot to sink into a retrieving system, but Amazon’s profits depend on the company becoming ever more efficient at shipping orders. The cost of processing packages is growing faster than the company’s sales are. Amazon spent nearly $8.6 billion in 2013 on fulfillment, a 34% increase from the year before; the company’s total sales grew 22% in the same period. This year, Amazon is on track to spend a sum about as large as the entire economy of Mongolia just to push its packages. (Amazon as a whole lost $437 million last quarter, as the company reinvests income into its own growth.)

Amazon Senior Vice President of Operations Dave Clark says improvements such as the Kiva robots have significantly increased operations efficiency while making employees’ lives easier. Amazon has sometimes been criticized for the conditions in its fulfillment centers, with workers often logging over 10 hours a day and walking up to 15 miles in a shift to pick items off the shelves. Conditions at a Pennsylvania warehouse drew attention to Amazon’s employment practices during the summer of 2011, when temperatures there reportedly reached 110 degrees and employees regularly collapsed with heatstroke. (Amazon has since installed air-conditioners in its warehouses.) The Kiva robots cut out much of the hard “picking” work and bring items directly to workers, who then process the orders.

“[Kiva] eliminates the part that was not a fun part about picking,” Clark says.

The days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are Amazon’s busiest of the year. Customers ordered 426 items per second on the Monday following Thanksgiving last year, the day online retailers have branded as “Cyber Monday.”

Clark insists the robots are “not about eliminating jobs.” Connie Gilbert, a picker at the Tracy fulfillment center, said more people have been hired to join her team since the Kiva robots were installed, because more robots mean more work. “The work pace is faster and the robots are continuously coming,” Gilbert says. “We have a lot more people that have come in to work and help us out.”

About 80,000 workers are expected to come on board as temporary help for the holidays this year. Many of them will be tasked with picking items from warehouse shelves — but others will ask a robot to do it for them.

Read next: Top 10 Gadgets of 2014

TIME Tech

Google Leases NASA’s Silicon Valley Airfield

Crew members walk the Solar Impulse to its hangar following a test flight at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California
Crew members walk the Solar Impulse to its hangar following a test flight at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California April 19, 2013. Robert Galbraith—Reuters

Google plans to use the sprawling facility for research and develop space and robot technology

With dreams of an increased footprint in space, NASA is cutting back on its Earthly properties.

The agency said Monday it will lease its Moffett Field airbase in Silicon Valley to a shell company owned by Google. The tech giant will pay $1.16 billion over the course of a 60-year lease, according to NASA.

Google plans to use the sprawling facility for research and testing in the areas of spaceships, robotics and other technologies.

Located on 1,000 acres in southern end of San Francisco Bay, the Moffett lease is expected to save NASA approximately $6.3 million annually in “maintenance and operation costs,” the agency said. The airfield home to NASA Ames Research Center, including an airfield, a golf course, office space and several giant hangers that once housed blimps.

“As NASA expands its presence in space, we are making strides to reduce our footprint here on Earth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. “We want to invest taxpayer resources in scientific discovery, technology development and space exploration – not in maintaining infrastructure we no longer need.”

“Moffett Field plays an important role in the Bay Area and is poised to continue to do so through this lease arrangement,” he added.

In February, NASA had agreed to negotiate exclusively with Google to lease the property. The base is close to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and its airfield is home to a fleet of private jets owned by Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

Google had previously signed a deal to develop a new office complex on 42 acres at Moffett Field. But last year, the company halted those plans, possibly to await an agreement to manage the entire facility.

Under the latest deal, Planetary Ventures, Google’s real estate arm, is expected to pump $200 million in improvements to the property, including refurbishing a hangar and creating a facility for the public to “explore the site’s legacy” and learn about Silicon Valley.

“We look forward to rolling up our sleeves to restore the remarkable landmark Hangar One, which for years has been considered one of the most endangered historic sites in the United States,” David Radcliffe, vice president of real estate and workplace services at Google Inc., said in a statement.

The news of NASA’s lease to Google comes after a series of setbacks for space excursions and the industry over the last few weeks. On October 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed during a flight test in the Mojave Desert, which resulted in the death of a pilot. Days earlier, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded six seconds after lift-off.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. How do you frighten political strongmen? Teach journalism.

By Thomas Fiedler in the Conversation

2. Far from policing free will, taxes on sugary drinks make sense in the context of subsidies for corn syrup and the Medicaid and Medicare expense of 29 million Americans with diabetes.

By Kenneth Davis and Ronald Tamler in the Huffington Post

3. Palm oil production has a devastating impact on the environment, but smart science and better farming could reduce the harm.

By Michael Kodas in Ensia

4. We shouldn’t let Ebola panic squelch civil liberties.

By Erwin Chemerinsky in the Orange County Register

5. What we learn from video games: Giving military robots controls like “Call of Duty” could save lives on the (real) battlefield.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME robotics

This Robot Army Can Organize Itself

Harvard University — YouTube

Expect the future to be overrun with millions more like it

Scientists at Harvard University have created an army of over a thousand tiny robots that can communicate with each other to perform complex actions. The breakthrough could lay the framework for future robot brigades that collaborate to execute large tasks such as environmental cleanup.

The 1,024 simple bots, called Kilobots, are each only a few centimeters wide, but communicate with each other using infrared light to create large star- or K-shaped formations. Only the initial instruction to form up needs to be given — after that, Kilobots organize themselves and cooperate with each together to smooth out logjams or redirect bots that have wandered off-course.

Michael Rubenstein, the lead author of the study published in the journal Science, says that Kilobots mimic units found in nature such as a group of ants that link together to forge a river, or a body of cells that assemble to form an organism. “Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities — whether you think of cells or insects or animals — that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” Rubenstein said in a statement released by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Although scientists have directed simple bots to complete tasks before, this is the first time that such a large company has operated together. Radhika Nagpal, one of the researchers in the study, says that the Kilobots demonstrate the potential of robots to self-organize on a larger scale. “Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether its hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” Nagpal said in a statement. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

TIME Innovation

Origami-like Robot Folds Itself Into Shape and Walks Away

As a writer, the path of least resistance would be to frame this piece along the lines of small robots assembling themselves, then building bigger robots, then taking over the world. The old robot-overlord routine.

But these MIT- and Harvard-developed self-folding robots — cool as they are — don’t look all that menacing quite yet. For starters, one of the key ingredients is polystyrene, which is the same stuff used in Shrinky Dinks. That’s adorable. Second, it takes around four minutes for the things to assemble and start walking away. And third, the assembly has to be pre-programmed, so there’s still some human intervention.

Thirty years from now? That might be a different story. I’ll be retired (or homeless) on a beach somewhere, though, so I’ll just head for the water if these things start getting uppity. They can’t swim, can they? Can they?!!

In the interim, the researchers envision self-assembling structures that could be used in dangerous places like space or battlefields.

[ExtremeTech]

MONEY

How To Robot-Proof Your Job

I, ROBOT, 2004.
Can one of these robots do your job? 20th Century Fox—courtesy Everett Collection

Can a machine do your job? For more of us than you'd think, the answer is probably yes. But there are ways to stay ahead of the automation curve.

If you find it hard to imagine that a robot could some day take your job, you should probably try imagining harder. A new survey finds that one in five companies has replaced workers with automation — and not just in low-wage jobs.

While 21% of companies overall say that they now use technology instead of humans for some jobs, the number is even higher — 30% — at businesses with more than 500 workers, according to a nationwide survey out today by CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI). And that trend is only expected to accelerate: According to the report, one-third of employers predict that jobs at their firms that are currently performed by humans will come to be performed by machines in the next decade.

“This has been a threat for a long time and there are many industries that need a lot less people to do the same jobs more efficiently or for less cost,” says Janet Elkin, CEO of Supplemental Healthcare, a company that recruits staff for healthcare organizations.

Interestingly — some might say ironically — working in a cutting-edge industry doesn’t necessarily protect you from this dynamic. In fact, according to the study, workers at information technology firms are twice as likely to see their jobs replaced with automation. Employers in financial services and manufacturing rounded out the top three areas with the largest number of employers “deskilling” workers. Other industries or sectors that will see a big impact: Customer service, accounting, assembly, production, shipping, distribution, and sales.

Several forces are at play. In many cases, technology has and continues to eliminate the need for workers who facilitate transactions by enabling customers to perform those transactions themselves. Think travel agents, customer service reps, and even store clerks. You see it directly if you do self-check out at your grocery store or have eaten at a Panera Bread restaurant that has replaced cashiers with kiosks.

It’s not just affecting lower wage jobs, however. Powerful software is taking on professional and white-collar jobs in accounting, finance, and even paralegal work. “When I talk to my favorite geeks in Silicon Valley,” said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, in a May interview in New Scientist, “they look around and say, man, the work of a financial adviser, a junior analyst at an asset management firm, a pathologist, a hamburger flipper, I can automate that.”

Still, though technology taketh away, it can also giveth. Nearly 70% of companies that have replaced workers with automation say the new technology has also required the creation of new positions in their firms, according to the CareerBuilder survey. And 35% of companies that eliminated jobs with technology said they ended up creating more jobs in their firms than they had before automation.

“While automation may eliminate some jobs, it also creates other jobs that are higher paying,” says Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder and co-author of The Talent Equation. “One of the greatest challenges the U.S. faces today is sufficiently preparing the workforce for the influx of knowledge-based jobs that will likely result from progress in robotics and other STEM-related fields.”

So how do you put yourself in line for one of those new jobs?

  • Don’t wait for your current job to become obsolete. If you see an opportunity to make your job more efficient with technology, be the person to oversee the change and train people in how the new system works. “Make sure you’re the one who understands how it all works,” says Elkin..
  • Upgrade your skill set. If you have a job that you think a robot can easily replace, consider going back to school or investing in online courses that can help you gain valued expertise. You may need to explore alternative occupations and industries that are growing and where you can transfer your skill set, says CareerBuilder’s Jennifer Grasz.
  • Pay attention to trends in your field. Is job growth in your business accelerating or decelerating? Is this related to an economic cycle or technology advancement? Research articles online on how your occupation is evolving and develop the skill sets needed to leverage new technologies.

The survey did offer one positive sign for workers who have been replaced: It found that 35% of companies that eliminated jobs with automation hired people back because the technology didn’t deliver as expected or customers wanted to interact with a live person.

“Technology is not perfect and things often go awry,”says Elkin. “When that happens, you need a human to fix them.”

TIME

Losing Korean Baseball Team Replaces Fans With Cheering Robots

And so it begins...

Korea’s Hanwha Eagles do not have a good record. The baseball team has wracked up 400 losses over the last five years, according to the BBC. But just because a team has a losing record, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve big cheers — just ask any New York Knicks fan!

To make sure that the Eagles stadium is filled with the roar of the crowd and that team morale stays high, the Eagles are taking a page from The Future and adding cheering, chanting robots to their stadium seats.

Hanwha’s robot fans will work as stand-ins for human fans who can’t attend a game. Remote fans will be able to control some of the robots’ movements — presumably certain hand gestures in the direction of umpires — and can even upload an image of their face to be shown on the machine’s screen. The robots will also let fans watch the game from afar, giving more fans the opportunity to join in the action and cheer on their team.

“It’s a pretty neat idea,” Hanwha Eagles pitcher and former Minnesota Twin Andrew Albers says in the video the team released to explain the presence of robots in their stands. “It gets the crowd into it and really helps them get involved.”

If robots cheer at the robot World Cup or the Femme Bot battles, can act as mules and write the Torah, how long until they decide they don’t need humans at all? Oh wait, they still need someone to battle in Connect Four.

MORE: Congress Gets Banned from Editing Wikipedia

MORE: Attaching a GoPro Camera to a Car Wheel Creates a Weird, Futuristic Kaleidoscope

TIME World Cup

Robots Have Their Own World Cup

But they're training to compete in ours

The computer Deep Blue defeating world chess champion Garry Kasparov at his own game in 1997 was one thing but when a team of humanoid robots defeats the world’s greatest soccer players it will be something else altogether. These scientists are working to achieve just that. Founded the same year Deep Blue took down Kasparov, the Robocup was born with the mission of developing an artificially intelligent human-like robot by 2050 capable of beating the World Cup soccer champions. But before the robots get to defeating us humans at the world’s favorite game they’re practicing against each other each year in the Robocup, a robot soccer tournament in which the machines must obey the same rules as normal soccer. For this year’s Robocup, more than 4000 engineers and scientists from over 40 countries assembled in Brazil to set their machines competing against one another.

TIME technology

This Robot Would Very Much Like to Play a Game of Connect Four With You

Game on

When the singularity finally hits and artificial intelligence takes over everything, at least we know some of the robots will know how to have a good time — like this Connect Four-playing bot, programmed by MIT student Patrick McCabe.

Users can choose between four levels of difficulty and can even ask for a hint if needed. Head over to McCabe’s website for a detailed breakdown of how the machine works. In the meantime, watch here as the bot beats McCabe in the first round — and even taunts him a little bit before clinching the game.

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