Military and industry leaders offered their thoughts on the future of unmanned aircraft and robotics during a panel discussion Nov. 11.
EvoNexus, which runs a pro bono incubator for young technology companies, produced the program while Qualcomm Inc. provided the venue.
An anonymous panelist on the bill turned out to be Linden S. Blue. He and brother J. Neal Blue are the investors behind General Atomics and unmanned aircraft-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
Joining him was Capt. Kurt Rothenhaus, commander of SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific on Point Loma. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy lab has experimented with robots that climb, swim and crawl. Charles Bergan, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm Technologies, was the third panelist.
Bergan spoke of the potential for drones to gather information — particularly in difficult industrial inspection jobs — and the potential for growth in the drone space. Qualcomm could one day supply microchips for unmanned aircraft.
Rothenhaus and Bergan each said their organization is working on the puzzle of decreasing the number of people needed to oversee flights. Other challenges, the Navy captain said, were how to power drones and how to get data off of them.
The panelists were optimistic about the topic of whether robots would eventually drive humans out of work, arguing that instead jobs would change. In an example of technology creating new jobs, one panelist said that more than 100 people are needed for an unmanned military aircraft flight; many assess data coming out of the aircraft.
Technology brings with it a sort of “creative destruction,” Blue said, noting that the introduction of the sewing machine increased productivity by a factor of 20.
One telling insight about how times have changed came when panelists discussed the drop in price for GPS. Today, a GPS unit in a wireless phone costs 10 cents. Blue recalled paying $20,000 for an early unit.
At a dinner for the speakers following the presentation, Blue told guests about a harrowing experience from an earlier business: growing bananas in Central America. While flying a small plane from Florida to Nicaragua, Cuban authorities forced Blue to land and jailed him. Behind the scenes was some geopolitical intrigue: the United States was pulling together resources in Nicaragua to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Blue was eventually released, but he said many of his cellmates were killed. In a bittersweet part of his story, Blue recalled one comrade who had been part of an a cappella singing group formed at the jail.
Toward the end of the dinner, EvoNexus held a drawing among guests for a door prize: a toy quadcopter.
The name drawn from the fishbowl was Blue’s.
The executive — who has access to a factory filled with unmanned Predator aircraft — accepted the gift with a smile while dinner guests laughed at the irony.