"No, no, no!"
That's Helen Greiner, founder and CEO of drone-maker CyPhy Works, pausing mid-bite over her lunch salad to object to my heretical notion that her vision of drones in packs, hovering above suburban soccer fields, sounds like a nightmare. "It's just a video camera that's self-propelled," she says. "You can get the bird's-eye view, the running shot. You can get it from any perspective."
Right. I still don't like it. But who cares what I think? "Things change," Greiner says. The future is nigh and she's driving it. Greiner launched CyPhy in 2008. (She first called it Droid Works but discovered George Lucas already had a claim on that name when he sent her a nastygram.)
Greiner was born in London and grew up on Long Island. She loved Star Wars, which her businessman father took her to see when she was 10 years old. "I've wanted to build R2-D2 ever since. I went to MIT to learn how," she says. MIT didn't really know how, but while there she met another similarly obsessed student, and Rod Brooks, then director of MIT's artificial intelligence laboratory. In 1990 the trio founded iRobot, creator of the Roomba robot vacuum.
That thing scares me, too--an electronic dust-mote eater that roams the house, unattended--but again, I'm irrelevant. Today they're in more than 10 million homes.
Greiner left iRobot in 2008, three years after the IPO. "Rod blames me for squashing the idea of iRobot going into, you know, suspect types of applications"--she means sex robots. Apparently that's a creep-out line even she won't cross. ("What would I tell my mom?") But more than that, Greiner saw the future--and it was airborne.
Remember when, back in December 2013, Jeff Bezos showed off his prototype "octocopter" delivery drone on 60 Minutes? Charlie Rose got so excited he nearly passed out. Greiner, however, was unimpressed, as were all those who'd heard her riff on the concept earlier that summer at TEDx Boston.
But it's coming, Charlie, and sooner than you think--a brave new world of flying robots that will not just terrorize our enemies but also deliver our groceries, fetch the remote, and insure that nothing we humans do, whenever and wherever we do it, goes unrecorded. Cumulative spending on what the industry calls unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is projected to approach a staggering $100 billion over the next 10 years. According to the latest Mattermark report, 105 drone startups have so far raised $367.8 million in funding.
But CyPhy has had a seven-year headstart. While most of that time Greiner has been in R&D mode, she's finally unveiling its mad science: The PARC (persistent aerial reconnaissance and communications) is a tethered, military-grade surveillance drone designed to surpass the 20 minutes of battery power standard for drones. The PocketFlyer, an electronic hummingbird that fits in your pocket (as long as you're wearing cargo pants, like Greiner does), is suitable for indoor reconnaissance flights in live-shooter situations. And the LVL 1 is CyPhy's first foray into the consumer market.
Greiner initially bootstrapped CyPhy, and then raised $13.5 million in venture capital. (She won't disclose revenue.) But now she's applying her experimental whimsy to fundraising: Last spring she launched the LVL 1 with a Kickstarter campaign. It worked, more than tripling the $250,000 goal, while confirming there is a vibrant market for family-friendly drones at a price that Greiner says allows you to "buy without getting permission from your significant other"--around $500. But the way Greiner sees it, we're just at the beginning of the voyeur revolution. "It really is like computers in the late '70s," she says. "Yeah, they work and people are really excited to get them in their homes. But there's so much more they could be doing." Which is precisely my fear.