Inside The Maker Faire

Technology focus becoming far more practical and much more interesting.


The Maker Faire is to the Internet of Things what Comdex once was to the PC, what Mobile World Congress still is to the mobile device, and what CES has become to the automotive industry. It’s a collection of the latest ideas and unique implementations that point the way to the big shifts in technology.

Most of the companies exhibiting at these shows never make it to become household names. Some are bought and absorbed by other companies that have enough momentum and business know-how to fuse their ideas together. Others fade away when their funding runs out.

But this year’s Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., had some unique attributes. For one thing, the foundation for these inventions is less about doing more things within the confines of a box than a means of connecting them to other boxes or things or people. In effect, it removes the barriers for creativity because that connectivity can be wireless or wired. Moreover, as drone makers have shown, it doesn’t have to sit on the ground or a desk or even fit into your pocket.

In the case of drones, they don’t even have to fly. Underwater drones can inspect the underside of boats to see if there is any damage and relay that data wirelessly as pictures or video. Or they can simply go down and shoot underwater pictures the same way flying drones do, and it’s not a stretch to think about them delivering supplies to divers working deep underwater the same way Amazon visualizes drones delivering packages.

Fig. 1: Trident’s underwater drone.

In the past, this required a full submarine, but drones can serve this purpose well enough. They can do the same in mine shafts and other inhospitable places. The cost to replace them is minimal compared to the cost of sending in a manned vehicle, and the only casualty if something goes wrong is a relatively inexpensive piece of hardware. Moreover, as time goes on and these devices become more capable and more ubiquitous, the tasks they can accomplish will increase while the price either stays the same or drops.

Robotics was a major focus at this year’s Maker Faire, as well. What was different, though, was that it wasn’t all, ”gee whiz, look at what this device can do.” Robotics companies aren’t high on the list of venture capitalists as the next big thing, in part because it’s so difficult to program these devices. It’s not that the ideas are bad. It’s that the cost of programming these devices to do useful, or even silly things, is expensive and slow.

This year’s show featured more behind-the-scenes technology to help simplify that programming. This is a significant shift for the Maker Faire, which in the past has emphasized prototyping boards but no way to simplify the software programming. The infrastructure will help solidify some of these market segments. Whether that attracts venture funding remains to be seen, but it’s clear that companies have recognized real market problems and are working on them.

Fig. 2: Xpider programmable robot.

Fig. 3: UP Core integrated development environment.

Other unusual developments come in the area of agriculture. While much of the attention in agricultural IoT has been focused on relaying field conditions to a central command center, similar kinds of attention are now being paid to indoor vertical farms that rely on aeroponic and hydroponic technology. This technology began gaining attention after Fujitsu began retrofitting an old transistor factor built in 1967 to grow lettuce. That technique has begun catching on since then, allowing countries to grow crops locally that normally would need to be imported because of weather, soil, or simply lack of space.

But by applying smarter robotics to agriculture, there are other benefits. Rather using people to weed, robots can do it as well. They cost money up front, but they can do the work 24 hours a day, regardless of external conditions.

Fig. 4: Franklin Robotics’ solar-powered weeding bot.

All of these are real applications or real problems being solved, and they are an indication of just how quickly the IoT has progressed over the past few years.

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