It looked like a swarm of model airplanes. But actually they were drones that were hovering near me at a University of Pennsylvania engineering school demonstration. The purpose of the workshop was to explain the practical application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The possibilities included disaster assessment, tracking rare animal species, and (Domino) pizza delivery:
Also, drones can play the James Bond theme:
Much more seriously, the drone research reminded me of seemingly functionless work from Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman:
“…I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.
I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate–two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! …
I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it…I was “playing”…
I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…’ and I show him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it? ‘Hah!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever…’
…There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”
Similarly, before 1984, when the original AT&T was a monopoly, its research subsidiary Bell Labs employed certain scientists whose job was just to “think.” As a result, between 1925 and 1983, Bell Labs created the first fax machine, the original laser, the solar battery cell, light emitting diodes, the UNIX operating system on which the internet is based, digital cell phone technology, and maybe they “heard” the Big Bang.” The transistor, which led to computer microchips, touchtone phones, hi-def TVs and many other technologies, came from Bell Labs.
My bottom line? It is too expensive NOT to pay scientists just to think.
Sources and Resources: Very readable and full of stories that Dr. Feynman tells about his life, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a great book. The excerpt from the Feynman book, published by W.W. Norton, is at Amazon, pp. 173-174 while AT&T Bell labs stories are here. To learn more about drone research, this Penn Gazette article and the TED talk (above) on drones provide the details. Meanwhile you can also read about the flow of venture capital into drone development.