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Virtual Worlds and Real Dreams

Poor Mr. Falcone. What started as a glorious dream a wireless network spanning from sea to sea fashioned out of some underused spectrum is now rapidly disintegrating into a melee of claims, counterclaims, unforeseen technical barriers, FCC actions and an unending series of embarrassing newspaper headlines. What a mess. Less talked about will be role of the one piece of the story that was so critical that its criticalness was often just assumed - GPS Whatever the fate of Falcone’s Lightsquared dreams, fund or fortune, you can be sure we and a whole lot of other watchers will be studying the history and the aftermath of this spectacle and drawing lessons for future moguls. Some will note the cavalier attitude to market incumbents while others will note the close ties with government regulators. All sorts of wonderful things can happen when one aligns themselves with a major government mandate, in this case rapid deployment of mobile and rural broadband, unless of course an even more powerful government constituency has different priorities. Still others will cite the high lifestyle and risk-taking attitude for the plunging lows as much as for the soaring heights. Sometimes the risks are so large you just need a believing billionaire to make it happen – or not. Less talked about will be role of the one piece of the story that was so critical that its criticalness was often just assumed - GPS. It has become so pervasive, so crucial to the modern world, that even the first hint that the Lightsquared network would interfere with it, even a tiny bit, was enough to cause serious concern by everyone involved. So many applications – automotive, agriculture, aviation, military, logistics and many others – depend on it that in retrospect, it is hard to see how any group, no matter how powerful, could have gone up against it and won. GPS and its associated positioning and navigation applications singlehandedly beat out wireless spectrum shortages, national broadband plans and billion dollar hedge funds. One lesson we can draw from this story is that the need to know where you are and how to get to where you’re going can often be much more important than being able to communicate from where you are. History records that it was the compass and the astrolabe that discovered continents and conquered the oceans, long before the telegraph and radio were but a glint in an inventor’s eye. Mapmaking and surveying were arts at least hundreds of years

…it was the compass and the astrolabe that discovered continents and conquered the oceans, long before the telegraph and radio

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older than any Pony Express. Now, not just GPS satellites, but digital roadmaps, satellite images, triangulation from cellular base stations and wifi hotspots, even 360 degree fully immersive streetview images help people, businesses and things find their way. Surely, as the multitude and economic importance of applications increase, the demand for precision, resolution and timeliness will only get more intense. Higher resolution and more timely images of the Earth will likely be met by larger and more capable constellations of imaging satellites and airborne platforms Some of this demand will be met through improved GPS or competitors to GPS (such as the Russian GLONASS or the Chinese Compass-Beidou) or by any number of GPS augmentation systems. Higher resolution and more timely images of the Earth will likely be met by larger and more capable constellations of imaging satellites and airborne platforms. Still other demand, such as for places, street layouts and people locations, will come from the crowd, the lively cacophony of user-created content that has exploded data generation. Never in human history has more of our environment been so precisely tracked, recorded and virtualized as it is now, all for want of knowing “Where am I?”. In “Information superhighways get streetwise” (January 2010), we postulated that the virtualization of the real world, implemented in part by Google StreetView and others, would be just as valuable if not more so than the many virtual worlds that are served up by online games and social networks. We thought this because, as much as our attention is increasingly being diverted online, we never will and cannot replace the real world as a place where we interact, meet-up, experience and conduct commerce. What we will have instead is a melding of the real and the virtual, where virtualizations are being used to support interaction in the real world. At first this means location-based services, such as Foursquare and Facebook Places. Then there is augmented reality, where we use mobile devices to superimpose virtual entities and information over the real world. Some have more esoteric but practical ideas, such as identifying physical addresses with virtual identifiers and establishing hyper-local geographic social networks. Having virtualized the real world for our benefit, there’s no reason not to flip things around and use the full array of data processing and sensor technology to let unmanned systems go wherever we wish autonomously. While easy enough in a virtual world, where there are no constraints on where you can go and what you can do, the real world is trickier. Physics, geography and weather, not to mention city streets, buildings and even legal boundaries and traffic

Having virtualized the real world for our benefit, there’s no reason not to flip things around…

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law are all obstacles and con ws s nstraints. B our co But ompass and as strolabe come in hand once mo dy ore. GPS h helps with c coordination n; sa atellite ima ages, up-to o-date weather-repor rts, street maps and places and the knowle edge of the cloud he elps some more. Add ad dvanced ca ameras an sensors to monito local ch nd s or hanges and co onditions a and inexpe ensive ma achine inte elligence to tie them o m to ogether in a package Now we have ev e. verything w need t we to na avigate the world. Ene ergy and an engine ma it go. n ake Th possibilities are e he endless. Go oogle took all of the above and more and bu the driv uilt verless car Now you can have a car tha r. u e at dr rives across the count with little more nee for drive interactio s try e ed er on than refueling Maybe th future w be less a g. he will about drivin and mor ng re ab bout efficien transport nt tation and just enjoying the ride.

If you had a flee of et affor rdable, emin nently navig gable but grea atly autonomous robo otics with almo total ost freed dom of the sky… what wou … uld you do with the em?

The Goog driverless car. Autonomous, b very connected. gle but ut ads? If only the FAA w y would let am mply creativ ve Bu why just stick to roa inv ventors use them in A e American ai irspace (and indication are that it ns may start do oing so), u unmanned aerial vehicles may become the ne major a ext application. Already, sm quadro mall otors – sim mple but ver ry stable helico opters with four rotors – are proving popu s ular toys fo or lazy Sunday afternoons For others they hav become a delightfu s. ve e ul ngineering platform. In the last fe months, very popul videos o n ew lar of en the latest dem monstration of coordinated swarms of quadrotors from ns m the Universit of Penns ty sylvania, ET Zurich a others have made TH and the rounds. F a samp of some of them, be sure to ta a look a For ple e ake at ww ww.kmelrob botics.com

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… the era of personal autonomous robotics may soon be upon us, made possible where big data intersects hardware and the real world

Simple, small and agile quadrotors For some, this is almost frightening but for others it is opportunity. If you had a fleet of affordable, eminently navigable but greatly autonomous robotics with almost total freedom of the sky and the same access to data and intelligence as the Google driverless car, what would you do with them? If you are the government, you might slap a small camera on some and use them to keep an eye on citizens. If you were a citizen, you might use the same to keep an eye on government or your teenaged daughter. If you were an enterprising sort of chap, then how about building a transportation network? The internet was abuzz this week about a Tacocopter service, purporting to use a fleet of quadrotors to deliver tacos right to their customers, wherever they and their smartphone happened to be. The concept turned out to be part joke, part concept, but we are not laughing. Another startup and spin-off of Singularity University, Matternet (www.matternet.net) is aiming to build a roadless transportation network using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles to serve “the rising one billion” with point-to-point package delivery in developing countries. An interesting concept and one which may end up having more applications in the developed world, but no doubt a starting point for things to come. If it isn’t already here, the era of personal autonomous robotics may soon be upon us, made possible where big data intersects hardware and the real world. In “Building Blocks of the Future” (March 2011), we noted that low-cost commodity hardware and almost frictionless sharing of ideas through digital channels was engendering an open hardware / do-it-yourself / maker movement around hacking the physical world. In the year since, what we have

Despite economic calamities, a daunting pile of public liabilities and a growing beadledom of officious regulators, America has always been where people dream big dreams

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seen only confirms that this trend is accelerating. Once affordable consumer 3D printers (a topic that merits its own entire article) are able to churn out driverless cars, quadrotors, aircraft, boats and who-know-what-else, the future starts looking rather interesting. Despite economic calamities, a daunting pile of public liabilities and a growing beadledom of officious regulators, America has always been where people dream big dreams. Some dream of building nationwide broadband telecommunications networks while others dream of deploying flocks of mechanical carrier pigeons delivering lifesaving packages around the world. Others dream of being able to go anywhere, anytime. Many think you have to be a big-time industrialist or a swinging hedge fund manager, a 1%er, to make those dreams a reality. We think otherwise – this is the era that unprecedented access to information technology and the meshing of virtual and real worlds means anyone with an idea and a little gumption can make their dreams a reality. Ubiquity, at least in the ability to sense and then act anyplace and anywhere on Earth, used to be limited to gods, then to the Department of Defense, now someday soon even us private citizens may get a small taste of it.

By Ian Fichtenbaum Near Earth LLC

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