A History of Silicon Valley

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These are excerpts from Piero Scaruffi's book
"A History of Silicon Valley"

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

The Selfies (2011-16)

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Space Exploration

The field of space transportation had been galvanized by Elon Musk's widely advertised SpaceX.

Virgin Galactic, founded on 2004 in Pasadena by British billionaire Richard Branson, had been the first private company to attract media attention with a plan to develop commercial spacecraft and space tourism, but in 2014 a crash killed one of its test pilots. In November 2015 Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos, became the first company to launch a rocket into space and land it gently and safely back down on Earth.

Also in 2015 Elon Musk's SpaceX successfully landed an unmanned rocket upright, something that national space agencies had failed to achieve. Within a few months SpaceX and Blue Origin demonstrated that they could return their rockets intact to Earth and reuse them. NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft took 36 years to exit our solar system, a journey of about 0.0005 light years. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 light years away. With the existing technology (the technology of using an explosion to defeat gravity) it was unlikely that human civilization would ever reach the nearest star. But in 2016 Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the Starshot project, headquartered on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park (better known for the venture capitalists who fuel Silicon Valley's bubbles). Starshot aimed at launching a flock of mini-spaceships propelled by 10 million lasers spread over a square km of land. These mini-spaceships would travel at speeds much closer to the speed of light, thereby reducing the journey to Alpha Centauri to "only" 20 years. The project was assigned to former NASA Ames executive Pete Worden.

A major change in the approach to the whole field was emerging in academia, though. In 1999 Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University and Bob Twiggs of Stanford University had proposed the CubeSat standard, largely inspired by the standards that had allowed the personal computer industry to flourish. A CubeSat is a small satellite made of commercial off-the-shelf electronic components. The original proposal was for these "nanosats" to have a size of exactly one cubic liter. In November 2013 Orbital Sciences, based in Virginia, launched 29 satellites and Kosmotras, based in Russia, launched 32 satellites. In January 2014 Orbital Sciences sent an additional 33 satellites up to the International Space Station. Most of these satellites were CubeSat-compliant. They were built by Planet Labs, founded in 2010 in San Francisco by former NASA scientists Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler and Chris Boshuizen. Another San Francisco-based startup, Nanosatisfi, worked on affordable satellites (nicknamed "ArduSats") based on an open-source platform, again using an engineering model borrowed from the computer industry. It was founded in 2012 by four graduates of France's International Space University (Austrian-born former CERN physicist Peter Platzer, Belgian-born Jeroen Cappaert, Canadian-born Joel Spark and Hungarian-born Reka Kovacs), three of which were also former NASA interns.

Google had spent more than $28 billion on more than 160 companies since 2001, so it wasn't really surprising that it also ventured into the sky, from Skybox Imaging, founded in 2009 in Mountain View by four Stanford graduate students (Dan Berkenstock, Wall Street financial analyst Ching-Yu Hu, aerospace engineer Julian Mann, and air force research physicist John Fenwick), that had just launched its first mini-satellite with the goal that some day users would be able to see any spot on Earth, to the New Mexico-based Titan Aerospace that made solar-powered flying drones (acquired in 2014).

The history of "home" drones was another history of how the open-source community hijacked a military technology and outsmarted the big corporations. The origin of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) harks back to World War II (the OQ-2 "radioplane", designed by Walter Righter) and to the Vietnam War (the Firebee). Drones are basically remote-controlled flying robots. The "intelligence" of the drone depends on the autopilot. A rudimentary autopilot was first demonstrated in 1914 by Elmer and Zula Sperry at a conference in Paris, but the first major flight that was completely under the control of a machine took place in 1947 when a military airplane completed a transatlantic flight. Any airplane became a flying robot. The modern drone was invented by Abraham Karem, a former Israeli engineer who in 1985 built his first drone in his Los Angeles garage, which General Atomics turned into the Predator, used in 1995 over the skies of Yugoslavia. In 2002 for the first time a drone, this Predator, was used to kill someone (by the CIA during the war in Afghanistan and the target was Osama bin Laden but an innocent civilian was killed by mistake). Meanwhile, Seymour Papert's book "Mindstorms - Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas" (1980) had exerted a huge influence on a generation of MIT students and in 1998 one of his students, Fred Martin, developed the MIT Programmable Brick, a set of hardware and software parts to build robots. Lego immediately understood the potential of this kit and marketed it as the Lego Mindstorms, a series of kits that allow children to build programmable robots. In 2007 Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, built his first drone at home using parts from one of these Lego kits, and founded DIYDrones.com, an open-source community for drone hobbyists. Anderson met a 19-year-old wunderkid from Mexico, Jordi Munoz, who had built an autopilot using parts of a videogame remote, and in 2009 they decided to found 3D Robotics in Berkeley to make drones. This project had been preceded by open-source autopilot communities: Paparazzi started in 2003 at ENAC (France's National School of Civilian Aviation) and PX4, started in 2009 at ETH in Switzerland. In 2014 the Linux Foundation founded a more general open-source project, called Dronecode, with founding members such as 3D Robotics and Baidu. AeroQuad and ArduCopter were open-source hardware and software projects based on Arduino for building quadcopters, projects that yielded, for example, the "universal autopilot", ArduPilot Mega (APM), which then evolved into Pixhawk. In 2016 an average amateur could already use the free DIYDrones resources to build a drone spending less than $1,000 in parts and achieve the same functionalities of the $140 million Global Hawk drone that was used by the US military over Afghanistan. To expand the potential applications of drones beyond the hobbyist market, Jonathan Downey's Airware (San Francisco, 2011) built an operating system for drones, a way to make drones programmable for use by corporations. It was briefly hailed as the next big thing in drones, but it collapsed in 2018, one of Silicon Valley's many failures.

In 2015 Facebook built its own drone, designed by its own aerospace team, to deliver high-speed Internet connectivity to remote parts of the world. Camera drones, such as the Chinese-made DJI Phantom and the French-made Parrot AR Drone, rapidly became common toys.

In 2018 California's governor Jerry Brown announced plans for California's first satellite, a joint project with the San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded by ex-NASA scientists in 2010.

click here for the other sections of the chapter "The Selfies (2011-16)"
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

Table of Contents | Timeline of Silicon Valley | A photographic tour | History pages | Editor | Correspondence