Crowd funding, Drones, 3D Printing and the Digital Economy
As software is eating our world; how we buy, build and consume products is changing. This is a story about the digital economy and my experience dabbling in it.
It started about a year ago when I backed a new project on KickStarter. They had a nice idea for a Drone that could collapse down and fit in your pocket (large pocket). They had a slick video and got some good media attention. The price looked good and I had had a pretty good experience with a few other KickStarter projects so thought I would go for it.
Over the course of a year we would get regular updates, pictures from factories, drones being assembled and tested. Everything looked good albeit the project was taking a lot longer than was expected. Finally at the beginning of this year I got an email confirming shipment. To say I was excited was an understatement. Then it went quiet. No delivery, no updates, nothing. About a month later I checked the KickSarter page to see if there were any comments:
It did not take long to find out that something had gone very wrong with the campaign. Lots of people had received the wrong pledge, other people had not received anything and worst of all nobody could get their drone to fly. Luckily a couple of days later a parcel turned up and my drone had arrived. The box looked good and I opened it up to find everything there. I followed the instructions, charged it all up and went outside for my maiden voyage. But just as many other had found out, this drone ain't going to fly in a hurry.
I later got a message from AirDroids; the gang behind the campaign who claimed the they ran out of money and that they had to take personal loans just to get the campaign to the end. Not sure I entirely believe it, however I am pretty sure that their intentions had been genuine, just their execution was poor.
Making products is difficult, product development, manufacturing, logistics, marketing are all hard. Just because a KickStarter campaign gets noticed does not mean that its going to be a success. Especially when it comes to hardware.
Back onto the KickStart page I found a link to a Facebook group that had been set up by people who had received the drone and knew what they were doing.
An amazing guy called Rolf van Vliet who obviously knows what he is doing put together a fully comprehensive guide to the pocket drone, including all the modifications that you have to make to get it to fly.
Another couple of hours of calibration, modifications and playing about and I finally managed to get the little drone into the air!!!! But still flying behaviour was poor. It would fly for about 20-30 seconds and then crash, slowly destroying the airframe.
People are amazing, The number of people that came together on Facebook and help each other out is fantastic and a big thanks to the time that Rolf van Vliet spent putting together the support guide.
Just because somebody can build it does not mean its any good. The design of the pocket drone is very poor, breaking on crashes and unable to maintain calibration for flying. These guys were not engineers!!!
Social design & 3D Printing
With all my crashes the drone was not fairing well. Its landing gear had taken a battering and was destroyed. But this is the Digital Economy, thats not going to stop me!!! Somebody had designed a set of new legs and uploaded the designs to Facebook for other to download and get printed up using a 3D printer.
Not to be beaten I used a service called 3D Hubs who are a broker for people with 3D printers. You upload your design and they will calculate the printing cost, suggest people that can print up your component in your area and manage the payment and transaction. Within a couple of hours I had a local guy here in Dublin printing me a new set of legs for the Drone.
So back out with the drone and a few more test flights later I am back to 3 broken legs.
Again, the fact that people have taken the time to model up these legs and distributed them freely is amazing, but just because a person can model something in 3D does not make them an engineer and these legs did not last 1 crash.
Shipping from China
Rather than waste any more time with a poor design I chose to go with a new carbon fibre airframe that I found on Amazon.
Unfortunately it never turned up!!, so now I have tried buying it from a dealer in the UK over Ebay.
There is so much technology wrapped up in these little drones and its amazing how many people are prepared to invest their time in building drones and helping others to have fun. But the number 1 thing I have learn is that just because you can build it does not make you an engineer. But this got me thinking, Just like the ubiquity of cheap PCs and accessible programming languages has turned programmers into the new cool maybe the next big thing will be for engineers!!!! Maybe its time that engineering will become a great profession again as the demand for decent engineers who can design proper hardware that they can now manufacture on their bench.
Time to dust off my old engineering books!!!