Goodbye Phones, Hello Drones
I’ve loved gadgets all my life. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, it felt like ALL the best consumer hardware was coming from Japan. So when I got the chance to study abroad, I packed up and headed straight for the Mecca of gadgets future and past. Japan did not disappoint, and I loved being one of the first to (now humorously obsolete) new technologies like MiniDiscs (half the size of a CD!) and digital pocket dictionaries that were, ironically, about the size of a paperback book (wow!).
But the most meaningful piece of hardware I bought in Japan was my first ever mobile phone. Yes, mobile phones already existed in the US as well, but in Japan they were everywhere. I’ll never forget how empowering it was to have a mobile phone. Having the ability to call another person not from your home or a payphone, but from anywhere you happened to be, was like having a superpower. It was liberating, and I loved it. It was easy to see how big of an impact mobile phones would have in our lives, and that was back when there were only two killer apps, voice (making calls) and later text messaging. Fast forward two decades and now we don’t just have phones in our pockets we have the whole internet and a million gadgets in our pockets compressed into a conveniently-sized glass rectangle.
I was extremely lucky to be a part of the early Android team at Google and get involved in birthing and nurturing the ecosystem for that second generation of mobile phones (what we today just call “smartphones”). Smartphones have been my career for close to a dozen years, and it’s been an amazing ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything. That is why it is so scary for me to now take another leap and put my efforts into something that is not a smartphone. But the thing is, I’m seeing it again. I’m seeing a moment in time where a new technology is going to change so much of our daily lives, and damned if I don’t want a front row seat this time as well.
You see, about 8 years ago I started spending a little bit of my time as an angel investor and tried to help new startups plan for how to play in this new ecosystem of smartphones. A vast majority of the companies I got involved with were in mobile, but very occasionally they were not. One of these rare not-in-mobile companies that I invested in over 4 years ago is called Skydio.
Skydio makes a different kind of consumer hardware — drones. But unlike all the other drones that you have to fly with a remote control (and sooner or later crash), Skydio drones fly themselves thanks to the work of an amazing team of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision pioneers. The bet here is that just like you can divide phones into the pre-2007 period (different levels of dumb phones) and the post 2007 era (smartphones), drones are still in the dumb stage. Autonomy is the thing that will revolutionize them, enabling ubiquitous deployment of small smartdrones capable of doing a wide variety of helpful tasks (flying computers!).
In February of this year, Skydio shipped their first product. I received mine in early March on a Tuesday, opened up the packaging, charged the batteries, and let it sit until the weekend. That Saturday morning, my family and I went out for a family bike ride. This was a relatively new practice for us. I had recently had some health issues that were exacerbated by having an overly sedentary lifestyle, and wanted to make sure we spent as much of our weekend time out and about doing things and not at home on the couch. My daughter ended up loving going on family bike rides, and so that was what we started doing most weekends.
I took out Skydio’s smartdrone, the R1, and, for lack of a better word, started “playing” with it. We stopped at a local park and had it take turns following each of us, which turned into a game of hide and seek between the R1 and my daughter. Then, I put it into “Lead” mode (where the drone flies itself backwards while filming you from the front, using its prediction capabilities and obstacle avoidance to safely fly itself ahead of you and position itself where it believes you will be in the future). It was super fun, and my daughter started hamming it up for the camera as we were riding.
We went home and I played the video of our day on our TV and I just knew this was going to be a big part of our lives going forward. Every weekend, I could have R1 capture a video of a family bike ride from the front, like a film crew, worry-free, hands-free, and with me actually in the scene having a good time with my family. This was as transformational for me as when I first used a mobile phone.
Realizing that I could now achieve both being in the moment and capturing it was a complete a-ha moment. It’s also just the tip of the iceberg. In Skydio terms, this ability for the R1 to capture in this mode is just one “Skill” that the R1 has. Like any robot, the R1 can be programmed. Skydio is continuing to add more consumer video skills, and with the recently announced Skydio SDK, developers can now teach the R1 to behave in an unlimited number of ways, or have an unlimited number of Skills (basically, there is now the potential for the same type of app ecosystem that has made smartphones so much better than my original mobile phone).
I can have an unlimited number of new drones just by downloading new Skills (a drone that guards my house? checks my roof for any damage after a storm? walks my dog like in Back to the Future 2?), and most of them I can’t even think of yet (just like I couldn’t think of using my smartphone to summon an Uber or Lyft, or listening to a near-limitless amount of songs — way more than could fit on even thousands of MiniDiscs — or any of the millions of things I can do now thanks to developers).
I am super, super excited to again be invited to have a front seat to another transformational technology. I can’t believe how lucky I am that I was offered (and have obviously accepted) the opportunity to join Skydio as their COO. I get to be in the room where it happens, yet again, and this time, I can both be in the moment AND capture it.