XOXO 2013: Chris Anderson on Drones and Farming

Former Wired editor Chris Anderson talks about how he went from building a model airplane on his kitchen table to changing the future of agriculture

By Marty Patail September 20, 2013

Chris Anderson speaking at XOXO

The much-anticipated XOXO festival kicked off this morning in packed upstairs event space of YU Contemporary Arts with a keynote from Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief at WIRED magazine, and author of the hugely-influential book, The Long Tail: Why the Future is Selling Less of More

The subject of Anderson's talk was not apparent from the get-go. But Anderson, a story-teller by trade, led the audience down a path that was as enthralling as it was inspiring, beginning with how he—in a quixotic attempt to get his five kids interested in science and technology—built a LEGO model airplane. The test flight ended with Anderson climbing a tree to retrieve the crashed vessel but later over the dining room table, Anderson googled "How to build an autopilot." Somehow, he cobbled together an autopilot that "almost worked." Even so, the experience of making something so complex so quickly and easily, he says, "gave him chills."

Fast-forward six years, and Anderson has quit his job at WIRED and runs 3DRobotics, a Tijuana-based drone factory that is on the verge of changing agriculture forever. 

What we learned:

Drones are the future of farming

Yes, really. When Anderson started his company, he didn't actually know what normal people would use his drones for—until farmers started contacting him with requests. It turns out, Anderson explained, that agriculture has been starved for the sort of data that can only be provided from low-altitude images. A single picture can tell a farmer countless things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to measure: irrigation leaks, fungal infection sites, soil conditions and types, etc. 

To illustrate this, Anderson showed us a rather unremarkable image of a Napa Valley vineyard shot directly from above by one of his drones. To the laymen, the picture said nothing. But the farmer who saw this picture immediately realized that there was a dark stripe of green running directly through the vineyard. His conlcusion: the soil conditions were different in that section because of an ancient underground stream, meaning he had actually been producing two slightly different grape varieties. In the futrure, he plans to separate out the those grapes in that dark band from the others to produce two different kinds of wine. 

It's no surprise why Anderson was chosen as the keynote speaker (beyond the fact that he is an excellent speaker). His story embodies what the XOXO is supposed to be about: people tinkering on their own and realizing that they have the power to do much more.  

Read more about XOXO here.

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