It’s crazy when you think about how much has changed since the 1970s. If you’ve seen American Hustle, you’re probably glad. (I did just have to get a new science oven myself this week.) The 70s were a weird time. But they’re also when I was born, so they form the basis of my perspective.
I often find myself talking to my kids about the way things were. About not having cable TV (and some family members not even having color TV) for a good chunk of my childhood. About rotary phones and card catalogs at the library and the ubiquity of payphones and the oddness of cell phones and the advent of the Internet and the Internet before it had pictures and computers pre-Windows and Atari and video game arcades and cassette tapes and vinyl records and VHS camcorders and so many other things that were but no longer are.
It’s been just one big avalanche of technological progress. Watching the Challenger explode on television was, in many ways, less dramatic than watching a CGI space-station torn apart by orbital debris in Gravity. I have more power in my outdated Android phone than in the first three desktop computers I owned combined. I now use satellites to navigate, I can buy nanofiber pants that repel liquids, I can print three-dimensional objects, and I surf the net on a fiber optic connection that promises speeds of 75mbps and actually delivers 45mbps. (My first modem was 2400bps.) I saw footage today from a video game engine that is so photo realistic, it’s almost impossible to tell the environments from the real thing:
Today, I followed a link to a video about a new toy robot with gyroscopic balance and sensors that allow basic hand-motion programming. Interesting enough in itself, on the sidebar was a link to the most recent cover of Popular Science:
Do you know what one of my favorite books was as a boy? It was this little gem:
I recently bought a copy of this from a used book website because it was such a significant imagination-starter when I was a kid. I don’t know if you can make it out, but that cover depicts a “telepresence” (virtual reality) helmet-wearing operator of a lightweight mechanical dragonfly drone.
The book was published in 1974. Here’s the plot synopsis from Wikipedia:
Danny exacerbates a small electrical fire, altering an experimental crystalline semiconductor material Prof. Bullfinch was evaluating. Prof. Bullfinch is able to use this altered material to create ISIT (the Invisibility Simulator with Intromittent Transmission), a dragonfly-like probe which could be piloted with a Telepresence helmet and gauntlet gloves.
The trio each tries out the device. Irene uses ISIT to birdwatch. Joe uses the device to observe a beehive from the inside. Danny discovers a bully nicknamed ‘Snitcher’ cheating by copying the word list to the school spelling bee and dishonestly winning himself a boombox. The ISIT is outfitted with a speaker which is subsequently used by Danny as a means to pretend to be the bully’s conscience, in order get Snitcher to confess to his father.
However, ISIT also causes problems, as soon afterwards Prof. Bullfinch is visited by General Gruntel. The general reveals (in very authoritarian language) he wishes to use ISIT as a tool to spy not only on enemy governments, but against Americans as well. General Gruntel attempts to seize the unit, but is rebuffed by Doctor Grimes. While going to get authorization to seize the ISIT, he leaves the professor’s lab under guard.
Danny, Irene, and Joe decide to take matters into their own hands and stealthily break into the lab to recover the probe. The probe’s absence is realized which leads to Colonel Twist, the commanding officer of the two guards, to delusively believe the device has been stolen by a foreign power. As he is being confronted by Twist, the Professor realizes the trio of friends are responsible. He informs Danny that without destroying his notes detailing the creation of ISIT, either the Soviets or the US military could still recreate it. While the local national guard arrives to secure the house against foreign spies, Danny and the Professor make their way to the probe’s controls and use it to cause a fire that destroys both the notes and probe.
Dr. Grimes arrives with orders from the Governor for the military personnel to stand down and leave the Bullfinch residence. Bullfinch informs Grimes that the device and his notes have been destroyed, leaving him the only man to remember the blueprints by memory. Professor Bullfinch also tells Dr. Grimes and Danny that he will not recreate ISIT until the world is ready for it.
Wow. Does any of that sound familiar? The ethics of drone usage, the desire for military application and spying on US citizens, the danger of the technology falling into the wrong hands…it’s all so 2014. And despite Professor Bullfinch’s unwillingness to recreate ISIT “until the world is ready for it”, it’s here.
Last February, the engineers sent their drone, called the InstantEye, to Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, for its annual Army Expeditionary Warrior experiments, where an infantry platoon used it to help complete a set of assigned missions. The soldiers gave it a “green” rating, one of the highest available.
Learning how nature creates superior sensors could lead to lighter, smarter drones. And as that happens, their range of applications will grow. Guiler and Vaneck plan to sell the InstantEye to the military and law enforcement. The British Forces have recently begun using a microdrone, a hand-launched helicopter called the Black Hornet, to scout for insurgents in Afghanistan. Microdrones may also have uses closer to home. They could allow police and SWAT teams to gather footage inside office buildings or banks and between skyscrapers, where winds typically gust.
Wood visualizes an even more diverse array of uses for RoboBees. A box of about 1,000, he notes, would weigh one pound. They could easily be shipped to a disaster site and deployed to search for survivors. They could also monitor traffic or the environment and help pollinate crops. Research scientists could use them to gather data in the field.
Whatever their application, microdrones are no longer a da Vinci–like dream of engineers. They’re taking off—agile, resilient, and under their own power.
As I was clicking over to grab that quote, I noticed something in my Twitter feed about the launch of a satellite later today from right here in Virginia. It’s all happening so fast.
I wonder what things will be like when my kids are my age.