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Enter The Dronenet

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Here’s my favorite Big Idea of the year so far, via John Robb, who’s always worth your attention: The Dronenet, a “short distance drone delivery service built on an open protocol.”

He fleshes it out in a series of posts, but basically, it would be a network of drones that would carry things the same way the Internet carries data: in packets, over a series of multiple hops, routing on the fly.

Sound like a pipe dream? Not at all: Matternet is a startup working on implementing just that for delivery of high-value goods (pharmaceuticals, electronics) to developing countries and/or rugged locations where the roads are so few and/or terrible that UAVs become the superior option. Their idea is for drone transportation to – literally – leapfrog trucks in those areas in the same way the cell phones leapfrogged land lines.

Robb’s, typically, is bigger. Essentially, he envisions the Dronenet delivering to individual buildings and even houses, eventually replacing UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the postal system. What’s more, it would dovetail awfully nicely with the 3D-printing revolution: I’ve argued before that almost nobody needs their own 3D printer, but the Dronenet could ultimately provide not just same-day but often same-hour delivery of newly printed items.

Feel free to be skeptical about the economics or the logistics, obviously – we’re talking about, by definition, a lot of moving parts – but hey, at least you can’t complain that this idea is boring.

Best of all, though, it lets me quote one of my favorite lines in all of science fiction:

The analysts at CosaNostra Pizza University concluded that it was just
human nature and you couldn’t fix it, and so they went for a quick cheap
technical fix: smart boxes.

–Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Just as shipping containers (and pallets) revolutionized shipping, the Dronenet will need standard-sized, interchangeable, reusable smart Droneboxes. (Which in turn every self-respecting 3D printer will be able to crank out pretty much from scratch.) They will be to the Dronenet what packets are to the Internet.

If I may step back into a slightly philosophical stance, this would actually be quite a striking development. People have been talking and speculating about the “Internet Of Things” for so long that it has actually threatened to become a little boring before it even begins to exist. Until now my assumption has always been that the Internet-Of-Things mostly just meant ubiquitous Internet connectivity coming to things that already exist in the physical world. But the Dronenet would be different: The Dronenet, if it happens, would instead be an instance of the physical world becoming more like the Internet.

Will it actually happen? Who knows? It may become yet another beautiful notion slain by that tragic assassin named economics. Or niche Dronenets may arise in a handful of places around the world where they make economic sense, but fail to ever quite mesh into, well, a world-wide web.

My greatest concern, though, is not economic but political: it’s that someone will start packing drones full of Semtex and sending them after political targets. I’ve been thinking about drone disasters for some time: a whole four years ago, before drones were big, I wrote (and CC-released) an entire novel about their misuse by terrorists.

That seems inevitable, and it seems likely that when it happens it will lead to a ham-handed, TSA-style clampdown on all drone activity everywhere, and a government monopoly on the use of drones (perhaps for panopticon surveillance), throwing the Dronenet baby out with the terrorist bathwater. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But I fear I have a lot of trouble coming up with reasons why it won’t.