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Here Come the Drones

When Amazon released its bold vision to introduce delivery drones, it was met with skepticism. What if they crashed in our front yards or worse? How would we distinguish safe flying objects from malicious ones? Amazon, and also Google X which is working on its own drone project, anticipated long regulatory approval cycles and debates in society—hence their roadmap of four to five years. You may not have noticed, but drone technology is ready. For a few hundred bucks, you can order your personal quadcopter today and the postman will deliver it tomorrow.

Skepticism with regards to innovation is perhaps more common in my home country of Germany than, say, Silicon Valley. When in 1835 the first train rolled at a speed of 18 miles per hour between Fürth and Nürnberg, some travelers readily concluded the speed was too high for our souls to stay healthy. While my compatriots are now traveling comfortably in trains at speeds beyond 180 miles per hour, people for many years happily stuck canes into the spokes of the German maglev train. It has taken more than 60 years and an ambitious city like Shanghai to set up the first commercial use of the technology developed in the 1970s.

As many innovators know, the adoption of bold innovations is more often a question of change leadership than of engineering and technology. Techies and large corporations alike tend to underappreciate that at times.

So who would think that Germany could be fertile ground for the first semi-commercial test-flights for delivery drones? From a change management perspective, what logistics company DHL has done is very clever indeed. The company is testing with flights to an island off the coast of Germany (so they are not flying over people’s homes) that deliver something nobody can object—medicine.

Video from DHL’s press-release around their “Parcelcopter Testflight.”

Let’s think ahead: What if that pilot program worked out and was well-publicized? What if then mayors of other islands demanded a similar service? Maybe some mountain huts and other remote places also? Could DHL create demand for this new service—not with an eye on turning that into a profitable business immediately but more to get people used to a measured use of drones, just like we got used to riding high-speed trains?

It is well-known that transformative innovations require the creation of an ecosystem around them for their success. If commercial applications inspire a somewhat fuzzy fear (like traveling at high speed might compromise people’s spiritual health), how could fear be reduced so that the debate can be elevated to a more rational conversation around risks and abatement plans?

From your own experience as facilitator, you may know the solution already. Decision making processes in organizations can indeed involve fear, which is certainly not an enabler of creativity, so we must use a playful approach to unlock a team’s full potential. What if DHL looked for playful applications of drones?

Intel’s “make it wearable challenge,” which is in itself a nice initiative, has brought attention to such innovations as a wearable drone developed by Nixie. The start-up is embracing a playful aspect by developing a drone that you can wear on your wrist and let it fly to shoot your personal pictures and videos.

Nixie’s prototype of a "flying wristband" quadcopter.

You may still prefer a headcam for your next wingsuit dive off a cliff, but for slower speeds, headcams could soon find themselves “old hat,” replaced by the really cool thing to have: a flying wristband.

What if DHL launched a challenge of its own: Really cool and playful applications of drones? These days the coolest gadgets are the smallest ones, and there’s an entire institute for micro-technology, located right in the heart of Germany. I would say we have come a long way from 18-mile-per-hour trains. 

Of course, these innovations have implications for logistics and delivery worldwide. The story of drones is just about to unfold. It will be fascinating to follow and contribute to it in the near future. 

Illustration by Brian Miller.