It’s not all good news, though. Like any immature technology, drones have problems, and perhaps their biggest right now is lack of power. “Flight time will improve, but slowly,” says Seydoux. “It’s a result of poor battery performance.”
There’s hope, though: battery tech is improving, and manufacturers are contemplating solar panels of fuel cells as an alternative. There are legal issues, too: while legislation varies from country to country, it’s still relatively draconian the world over (see panel below), but the industry is confident that will soon change.
“Whether people want to admit it or not, drones are going to become more populist,” explains Kevin Lauscher from Draganfly. “It’s just a matter of time before legislation catches up.” As for the privacy concerns? “Google Glass is much more dangerous for privacy,” says Seydoux. “Drones fly for a limited time; Google Glass you wear all day.”
Technology’s ever-advancing march is certain to make drones better — and fast. Top of the list is ever-more sophisticated autonomous flight.
While drones can happily fly simple missions guided by GPS now, expect them soon to be reacting to their surroundings. “Autonomous flight is coming along quickly thanks to the proliferation of 3D sensing,” explains Seydoux. “We have demos with a Kinect on the drone, which can see in 3D. It can reconstruct its environment and fly by itself, avoiding obstacles.”
Not only will they fly better — they’ll be able to do more, too. “The next real advance will be in payloads,” says Anderson. “As sensors become cheaper, you’ll start seeing things like infrared sensors and lidar on the bottom of more drones.”
A flighty future
So what does the future hold for drones? Well, we can expect them to take on more demanding imaging tasks, creating hyper-realistic 3D worlds for cinema and computer games and playing a central role in real-life video games. They’ll also dive further into difficult situations, hunting storms and getting to the heart of natural disasters.
There are more basic possibilities, too. In June 2013 Domino’s Pizza carried out its first delivery by drone, albeit one steered by remote control. Imagine load-carrying drones buzzing around the city, each one delivering your latest Amazon package — or perhaps transporting something even larger.
“People are even talking about using them to carry passengers,” speculates Lauscher. Google’s driverless cars suddenly seem a bit less exciting.
Drones are already becoming incredibly popular — just look at Dronestagr.am, an Instagram feed showcasing their aerial photography. And with components constantly improving in quality and decreasing in price, the sky is literally the limit.
While commercial drones are already dripping in expensive technology, we can expect them to do more for us — from insane Hollywood camera work to delivering our online shopping.
But plummeting costs mean that the most dramatic changes will be seen in consumer drones, which will come equipped with better autopilots, amazing cameras, and exotic sensors such as thermal imaging systems. Soon, every home could own a drone.