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Drone Enthusiasts Use Open Source Hardware To Drive Innovation


The global race to build drones is on and it's not just a race among militaries. Private companies in the U.S. and China are competing neck-and-neck for top spots in the burgeoning civilian drone industry. We're talking about drones that might use to eyeball forest fires or rescue stranded hikers.

From member station KQED, Aarti Shahani reports on one Silicon Valley start-up that plans to win the race by giving away its secrets.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Fridays at the Berkeley Marina, Chris Anderson wanders into this grassy clearing to test fly his latest drones.


CHRIS ANDERSON: We're basically building a 21st century aerospace company. And all of our competition is Chinese.

SHAHANI: Anderson is the CEO of 3D Robotics. He left his job as editor-in-chief of Wired magazine to build this start-up for non-military drones. And he's making a bet: While China has world-class engineers...

ANDERSON: The only thing cheaper than Chinese engineers are open source engineers.


SHAHANI: Open source means sharing the entire blueprint for a product. The guy you just heard chuckling was Matt Mullenweg. He wrote the open source code for WordPress, the most popular blogging software on the Internet. Mullenweg came to the Marina to check out open source hardware.

MATT MULLENWEG: I think that open source is the most powerful idea of our generation. And I've always worked with it in software. But I'm really fascinated when open source becomes this...


MULLENWEG: ...autonomous flying devices.


SHAHANI: Before starting a company, Anderson started DIYDrones.com. It wasn't a blog. It was a social network for anyone to share tips on how to DIY - do it yourself. Today, the business 3D Robotics takes blueprints from DIY's 40,000 users, and then goes traditional: get the drones made for cheap in Mexico and sell them back to the same user base.

Anderson says through the open source brain trust, you can move quicker than bigger shops.

ANDERSON: Remember, the Internet used to be Arpanet. It used to be military, we don't think of it that way anymore. GPS was designed for cruise missile controllers. This is a long tradition here in Silicon Valley of demilitarizing technology, so basically finding more interesting civilian purposes than military ones.

SHAHANI: Would you do drone work for military purposes?

ANDERSON: No, we wouldn't. That's just a compact we have with our community.

PAUL SAFFO: Open source is a way to get access to all the smartest people, including the ones who don't work for you.

SHAHANI: Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley.

SAFFO: And align them in a way that a small company can have a huge impact.

SHAHANI: Steve Jobs and Bills Gates came from the open source society of the 1970s, a group that called itself the Homebrew Computer Club. And when they left to start their closed-source empires, friends who helped build the personal computer were outraged.

Saffo, who knows 3D Robotics founder Chris Anderson personally, says he is different.

SAFFO: Chris is actually a really nice guy and he plays well with others.

SHAHANI: And playing well with others is key. In the 1980s, people had competing ideas about how to build the Internet. Saffo points out the inventor of the World Wide Web won by making it easy for the average guy, and...

SAFFO: With potential competitors, he offered them a way to become part of the World Wide Web without losing their identity. Open source is about collaboration, not competition.

ANDREW TRIDGELL: They're just another user. And if you don't want people to use your software, you shouldn't release it as open source.

SHAHANI: Andrew Tridgell, in Canberra, Australia, is a software engineer. He joined DIY Drones when he needed advice on how to build a real-life physical drone for this competition called the Outback Challenge.

TRIDGELL: There's a dummy called Outback Joe. And he's been lost in Outback Queensland for a number of years.

SHAHANI: Amateurs build drones that scout a few square kilometers, find Joe...

TRIDGELL: And then drop Joe a rescue package which is represented by a half liter of water in a water bottle.

SHAHANI: Since then, 3D Robotics has hired Tridgell to help build drones for sale. Tridgell says the money compensates him for all the time he puts in and the planes he crashes.

TRIDGELL: That's very generous of them and a number of other developers receive retainers or are employed by 3DR. And then there's lots of people in the community who are, you know, volunteers.

SHAHANI: Open source culture tends to look down on personal recognition. Crowds, not people, make breakthroughs. The trick for 3D Robotics is to keep its crowd motivated while paying just a few to beat the competition.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.