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The drone ranger

From a 'you suck' dad to the brains behind the next big thing

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BERKELEY, Calif. -- The flight plan of Chris Anderson's life is filled with funky layovers. Punk rocker. Physicist. Magazine editor. Book author. Geek dad.

But all those stops were just formative detours on the journey to his current role as CEO and co-founder of drone-maker 3D Robotics.

"I could argue that every step of my career makes sense, although from 50,000 feet it looks utterly random and insane," says Anderson, 52. "Even the punk-rock phase makes perfect sense. Well, no, it doesn't make any sense at all."

Anderson laughs easily and readily, often at himself. Make no mistake, he's a voluble renaissance man who's fully aware of his accomplishments as a particle physicist (at Los Alamos National Lab) turned magazine chief (with The Economist and then Wired, which he edited for the past 12 years).

But he'd rather talk about how he's the dumbest guy in the room at 3D Robotics, a mushrooming year-old garage-based operation that -- thanks to some $37 million in venture-capital infusions -- is poised to be a leader in the coming drone economy.

"Being a journalist and being a CEO are similar, because as a journalist you're writing about the do-ers, and as a CEO you're empowering them and taking delight in their success," says Anderson. "I'm the worst programmer and electrical engineer here. And I should be."

3D Robotics' current show pony is called Iris ($750), an insect-like drone with four upturned propellers that can be rigged with a levelling arm for a GoPro camera. The rest of the company's wares include an array of electronic brains and physical parts that allow others to build drones to suit their particular needs. The bulk of its 190 employees work in engineering and manufacturing out of offices in San Diego, Caif., and Tijuana, Mexico.

Anderson says the most obvious applications for drones are in the commercial space, ranging from entertainment (replacing pricey helicopters for those epic aerial shots) to agriculture (handling everything from crop monitoring to pesticide dispersion). "The market's booming," he says.

So much so the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will rule on drone regulations by the fall of 2015, when thousands of UAVs are expected to take flight.

Some will soar at airline altitudes, such as Titan Aerospace's Solara 60, a solar-powered drone designed to fly for five years while bringing Internet connectivity to the developing world. Facebook is said to be in acquisition talks with Titan.

"There will be restrictions on drones for safety and privacy reasons, but they're here to stay," says Daniel Burrus, a technology forecaster and founder of Burrus Research Associates in Milwaukee. "Agriculture makes a lot of sense for drones, but so do police and first-responder applications."

If there's a man who can envision those and other innovative drone missions (overheard at 3D Robotics: talk of conservation groups using them to monitor endangered species), Anderson is that guy, says Jon Callaghan of San Francisco-based investment firm True Ventures.

"Chris consistently sees where the world is going and knows how to decode technology's effect on our lives," says Callaghan, whose decade-long friendship with Anderson translated into a majority investment stake in 3D Robotics.

"What always impressed me about him was his willingness to ask the world for help when he didn't know the answer himself," he says. "Innovators who tend to succeed are the ones who are most open and intellectually humble."

That's a specific reference to 3D Robotics' genesis story, retold in Anderson's 2012 book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. The tale ranks up there with other tag-team tech miracles, include the Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak Apple birth and the Bill Gates-Paul Allen Microsoft big bang.

It centres on a fateful weekend in 2007 when Anderson, eager for his five children to adore science, went home with a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kit and a model airplane. The robot didn't do much, and the plane flew into a tree.

"The kids said, 'This sucks, and you suck,' " laughs Anderson.

Then the epiphany: The editor by day, inventor by night decided to tweak his Lego kit and build a crude autopilot for the model airplane. "I got chills when it worked," says Anderson, whose resulting creation is now in the Lego museum in Denmark. "When you do something that you really aren't supposed to be able to do, you know everything has changed."

Not long after, Anderson started a blog -- DIY Drones -- to help his nascent community of drone-makers help each other. One day an email came in, loaded with inventive code, from a 20-year-old from Tijuana, Mexico, named Jordi Munoz.

"Suddenly, he was the smartest guy I knew," says Anderson, who seeded Munoz with funds to begin building drone circuit boards that his blog's readers were clamouring for. A few years passed, and the operation grew: "When Jordi came to me and said, 'We're going to do $5 million in sales this year,' I knew it was time."

In 2012, Anderson left Wired -- the only editorial job he coveted from his lofty perch at The Economist, where he led Internet and business coverage in London, Hong Kong and New York -- and took entrepreneurial flight.

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 D6

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