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NEWS GT1509Santa Cruz hosts drone conference in May—will we be the center of robo-tech?

In 20 years, you won’t be driving Highway 17 to work in Silicon Valley—you’ll be flying your personal drone over the mountains.

At least that’s the vision of Philip McNamara, who is bringing an international drone conference to Santa Cruz in May with some of the top names in building the so-far-pilotless aircraft.

Not only that, but if McNamara has his way, Santa Cruz will be for drones what Mountain View and Palo Alto are  for search engines and software—a capital of the growing new technology.

“Right now is the golden age of drone development,” says McNamara, 40, who moved to Santa Cruz five years ago when his wife got a marine biology job at UCSC. “It’s kind of like where mobile phones were 10 or 15 years ago.”

How big will it get? Will we look like the Jetsons?

“I think drones will transport people on a large commercial scale,” says McNamara. “You will be able to call your Uber drone, and it will be able to take you to Silicon Valley.”

Santa Cruz is already flying ahead of the pack. Joby Aviation in Bonny Doon is working on carbon fiber wings and propellers that change and adapt, with the intention of making personal drones to take you to work. Its founder, JoeBen Bevirt, is a serial entrepreneur whose products include electric planes and the Gorillapod, a tripod mounting for cell phone cameras. He’s one of the featured speakers at the conference, which will be held at Kaiser Permanente Arena April 30-May 1.

McNamara expects 1,000 people from around the world to attend the conference, which, based on the high caliber of speakers, resembles a TED conference for drones.

He stresses that this is about drones for business and saving lives, not about military drones. The military gave birth to the concept of pilotless aircraft, called UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and has made it into a scary, deadly technology. Pilotless aircraft can be traced back to the 1800s, when Austrians used hot air balloons to attack Italy, but in recent years drone strikes to kill terrorists have been a way for politicians to fight a war without being responsible for “boots on the ground.”

Today, the U.S. Air Force has more than 7,000 drones, or one-third of its planes, many of them flown by people at computer terminals thousands of miles away. With names like Predator and Reaper and 66-foot wingspans, they can travel thousands of miles to launch Hellfire missiles.

But, like the Internet, which was originally a military invention, drones have a huge potential in peacetime, despite some people’s fears.

“To be sure, this is about commercial drones, saving lives and helping drowning victims,” says McNamara, whose day job is at the Irish company Voxpro, which helps Silicon Valley firms navigate Europe.

“With every new technology, there is always fear,” says McNamara. “People were afraid of cars when they first saw them. Some said cell phones will give you cancer. Others said, ‘If God wanted man to fly, he’d have given him wings.’ People worry about drones crashing and traffic and safety. But when a drone comes and saves you when you are drowning, you’ll be pretty glad of it. It can take a lifeguard three minutes to get to you, but a drone can be there in 30 seconds—or if you need medicine or an adrenaline shot.”

Commercial drones come in all shapes and sizes, from those little helicopter-like devices you see in Radio Shack to larger ones that can carry medicine or a defibrillator or a quality video camera. They are being used by farmers to keep track of crops, and ranchers to find lost cattle.

The Silicon Valley company Matternet has gotten funding to develop a chain of $3,000-a-piece drones with solar-powered charging systems, placed every 10 kilometers, to make deliveries. The company, backed by Andreessen Horowitz (who brought us Facebook and Groupon, among others), is currently experimenting with a “pony express” system in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to deliver “food, medicine, and other essentials to villages seasonally stranded by stormy weather and low-quality road infrastructure,” according to a Singularity Hub article.

Company founder Andreas Raptopoulos, who will speak at the Santa Cruz conference, told a TEDx audience in Edinburgh that his company has a worldwide market of one billion people who aren’t served by roads today. His drones could reach around the globe like the Internet (thus the name, Matternet, as in transporting matter). The cost to deliver two kilograms of matter over 10 kilometers is just 24 cents, he says. The vehicles cost three cents; the battery nine cents; the charging station 10 cents and energy two cents.

Of course, Matternet’s drones would not yet be able to fly under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, because they are autonomous, with no operator in sight, but he says they could help undeveloped countries with deliveries, which would also help relieve traffic in big cities.

“Imagine one billion people being connected to physical goods in the same way that mobile communications [connect] to information,” the ambitious entrepreneur says.

Amazon has been talking about a similar network to fly product orders to homes within 30 minutes. And just last week, the FAA announced proposed regulations allowing commercial drones to be flown up to 500 feet high and within the line of sight of an operator. The agency is taking public comment on its proposals at regulations.gov.

You can expect these proposed regulations to be a hot topic at McNamara’s conference, called the Drones, Data X Conference, which will feature talks by the top developers in drone technology, including inventors who worked at NASA, Google and the FAA. The focus is spelled out in the name: Drones, for the aircraft; Data for the volumes of data capable of being gathered by drones; and X for extreme sports, which conference attendees will be able to take part in during their four-day stay.

A conference ticket for Friday goes for $200, or you can get a Thursday pass to see drone demos at the Kaiser Permanente Arena for $10. The rest of the weekend is by invitation only. There will be speeches and classes, one of which is a foray into the mountains with Cliff Hodges, star of the National Geographic show Remote Survival, and a Santa Cruz native.

“It’s still a small industry, and the not-well-known superstars are willing to come to small events,” says McNamara, who organized the first drone conference last year in Ireland.

Speakers include Mike Winn, of Drone Deploy, whose Minnesota company makes drones for farmers to monitor crops; Romeo Durscher, who works on developing safe methods of working drones into society for the largest drone maker, DJI in Switzerland.

Part of McNamara’s goal is to encourage drone companies to look at Santa Cruz as a place to make their headquarters. With help from Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s director of economic development, and Doug Erickson of the Santa Cruz New Tech Meetup group, he’s organized activities to keep participants in the city and show it off.

Ibis and Santa Cruz Bicycles donated bikes for outings; there will be kitesurfing lessons and meals on the wharf and around town.

“When I see Delaware Street I think it’s crazy that there aren’t a bunch of tech companies there,” says McNamara. “Even downtown, you have all these amazing buildings. People paying $80 a square foot in San Francisco could be paying $30 in Santa Cruz.”

And, he adds, there is all of this open space around Santa Cruz, perfect for practicing the art of flying from the ground.


For tickets and more info on the Drones, Data X Conference April 30-May 1, go to: www.nua.io. PHOTO: Proponents believe Santa Cruz could be the future capital of the growing drone industry.

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