CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -- We still don't have hoverboards or flying cars, but in the glorious future we live in today, we do have flying robots that can bring us beer. Unfortunately for those in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration won't yet allow drones for commercial use. That means that while it's OK to fly beers around to your buddies in your spare time, no paid or promotional delivery services are allowed just yet.
But that hasn't stopped brew titan Anheuser-Busch InBev from looking into how drones might be able to help keep the party going in the near future. The company brought some experimental prototypes to Whatever, USA -- a fictional town that Bud Light created in Colorado last weekend for the purposes of throwing a party for 1,000 contest winners and creating all kind of new promotional content -- where I got an in-person demonstration.
I spoke with Federico Treu and Roberto Navoni of an outfit based in California and Italy called XTrace about the Bud Light delivery system that they worked up for "Whatever." Essentially, it's a custom-built quadcopter that's a slave to a beacon that also functions as a very simple remote control. Push one button, and the drone comes to you; a different button and it returns to where it started. Push a third button and the drone will follow you at a safe distance.
The small, lightweight drone can only carry one bottle of beer at a time, but it's still an important proof of concept for lazy beer drinkers everywhere. The drone can easily function as a push-button bartender or a beer-caddy, following you down the street with refreshment just hovering a few feet away, just in case you need a drink (the fourth and last button on the remote tells the drone to land where it is).
"When we started this project, the idea was that, it's really difficult to fly drones," Treu told me outside the
Crested Butte"Whatever" Visitors' Center. "But drones nowadays are smart enough to follow you, so even people that have never tried can fly a drone -- just hold the beacon, press the button and go."
For drone nerds, there are also some interesting things going on behind the scenes of what seems like a simple remote-controlled drone setup. For the prototypes in use at "Whatever," Navoni is in charge of safety. He walks around wearing Google Glass running a custom-made Glass app that provides him with a view of what the drone is seeing, as well as all the relevant statuses for the drones current operation.
In other words, while it may seem almost like a simple toy, Navoni is able to monitor everything that's happening with the drone through Glass and take over control of the drone if need be.
Treu says the next challenge for their drones is to automate obstacle avoidance. He says the drone in use at "Whatever" only has a carrying capacity of about 1 pound, but other form factors could easily handle bigger loads.
The drones came to "Whatever, USA" as part of a partnership through the "beer garage," a sort of skunkworks lab run out of San Francisco that looks at use digital tools and other innovations to promote brands like Bud Light.
Check out a delivery in action in the video below. The entire sequence was done by pressing only two buttons on the beacon.