Friday, August 10, 2007

Chris Anderson of the “Long Tail” Fame – Utilizing Mobile Phones for UAV Control

Chris Anderson the editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail delivered the keynote address at NI Week 2007. Chris originally wrote the Long Tail as a concept article in Wired Magazine back in 2004 when he noticed that the digitization of media would eliminate the economics that drove publishers to focus on megahits. Once the delivery of media became virtually free customers would have their choice and would thus exploit the “long tail” of additional choices.

Chris Anderson’s speech launched with a statistic that showed a bell-shaped curve representing the 20th century product development. When deviating too far from the mean raised the cost of supplying a product. Vendors develop products that appeals to the mainstream. He then showed a Pareto curve and described the inequality that comes into it. In traditional markets shelf space was limited so only high-volume products were displayed and then sold. With the advent of the internet, shelf space went to infinity and now provides a greater variety. The number of products in the niche segment is equal to the number of products in the mainstream section.

If you can lower the cost of distribution then you can offer more stuff. The internet lowers the cost dramatically. For software you lower the cost of production, distribution and search, and that drives the rise of the “long tail”. As software languages and tools become more sophisticated the production cost goes down. As we move to web-based applications, the distribution cost of software goes down.

The film business is an example of an industry that has reached the limits of its distribution channel. Chris showed a graph that with a dramatic falloff in revenue after the 30th film. The main reason is that the distribution capacity of screens to show films is at most 120 per year. Those films below the top 30 receive reduced revenues due to lack of screen exposure and national marketing.

Chris showed a Globalhawk UAV which cost $123M dollars. From this concept he and his family created a sub $1K UAV using Lego Mindstorms. His nine year old programmed an autopilot onto a remote controlled plane. He then organized a competition similar to a scavenger hunt. Each plane must travel to a prescribed point at which it then gathers new coordinates for the next target to reach. He mounted a cell phone in the plane for communication and used text messages to provide latitude and longitude. He mounted a camera on the bottom of the plane to send back pictures of what the plane sees. The 3G cell phone network provides two-way communication at a low cost. He used infrared sensors on the wings to provide stabilization and then the LabVIEW code provides steering and direction.

In his next project he used a cell phone to control the plane. Everything he needed for the project was already in the cell phone – GPS, onboard processing and storage, camera, and communications. In his flight, he was able to get 3 cm resolution on the images taken with the UAV. It’s interesting to note how the mobile phone continues to come up as a robust and enabling platform.

Best regards,
Hall T.

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