Drones aren’t the menacing aerial overlords they're made out to be – from saving lives to helping make Hollywood films, they’re ready to become man’s best robotic friend.
From headlines about their military antics to memories of Kyle Reese cowering in the searchlights of a ‘Hunter-Killer’ in The Terminator, drones don’t have the most glowing reputation. In fact, they’re often seen as heartless death-hawks with a grudge against humanity.
But while combat drones are rightly controversial beasts, they overshadow the positive and sometimes life-saving work of a growing number of benevolent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Whether it’s helping farmers fertilise their fields, filming spectacular documentaries or finding survivors of natural disasters, drones are ready to rehab their reputation and become our philanthropic worker bees...
Drones are, by their nature, inconspicuous souls that prefer shadows to stagelights. But in January 2012 a team of 20 autonomous quadroters became overnight YouTube stars.
In two videos posted by the Philadelphia company KMel Robotics, they were seen formation flying, organising themselves into a fluid figure of eight and, in a memorable encore, playing the James Bond theme tune on specially modified instruments. More than 10 million views later, drones had garnered a reputation as fun-bots with exciting potential.
They weren’t the first non-military drones to capture the imagination – Parrot’s original gaming AR.Drone was announced as far back as 2010. But after growing bad press about lethal, pilotless military strikes, they were a timely reminder that autonomous bots could yet become a force for good.
Eighteen months later, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approving the first commercial drones in the US and prices plummeting, drones are ready to become familiar faces.
Rise of the robots
Drones didn’t just burst into life like the worker bees they’re named after: perhaps unsurprisingly, their roots are in military research. As far back as 1935, the RAF was testing modified Tiger Moth biplanes which could be flown from the ground and these days the aviation industry has perfected the art, with drones such as the Global Hawk — which weighs 14 tonnes and can fly for 32 hours — carrying out missions the world over.
But just like the birth of computing, where IBM mainframes inspired hobbyists to create desktop computers for fun, so drones have garden-shed enthusiasts too. Online forums such as DIYDrones.com boast over 30,000 users sharing stories about home-made flying machines. “People are really turned on by the technological challenges and understanding that comes with building their own drone,” says Chris Anderson, ex-WIRED editor-in-chief and CEO of DIYDrones.com.
What’s in a drone?
Building your own drone is possible because they’re relatively simple. Sure, they vary: big or small, winged or rotored, cost hundreds of dollars or hundreds of thousands.
But essentially they’re built around an autopilot, made up of a combination of sensors — such as GPS, gyroscopes, and accelerometers — along with a processing unit to interpret the data and control the craft. Strap that autopilot to an airframe, with motors teamed with rotors or wings, and you’re good to go.
If the tech sounds familiar, it’s because you have something similar in your pocket right now. “A drone is essentially a paper plane plus an iPhone,” says Henri Seydoux, CEO of Parrot.
And fortunately, the essential components have been getting better, smaller and cheaper. “We have the mobile phone market to thank,” adds Anderson. “The thirst for better phones has driven down the prices, and improved the quality, of sensors, batteries and chips.”
Flight for the masses
Plummeting costs means drones are becoming available to the everyday punter. Just as IBM seized on hobbyists’ interpretations of mainframes to sell PCs to the masses, so the aviation industry is doing the same with drones. “What captures the imagination of the customer is to fly,” explains Seydoux. “Flying looks so beautiful and simple.”
Whether it’s a Parrot AR Drone 2.0 that lets you play augmented reality or a fixed-wing Lehmann L100 carrying a GoPro camera, the market’s flooding with automated flying machines, many of which can be controlled via your smartphone or tablet. Getting there hasn’t been easy, though.
“A big part is safety and reliability,” explains Jonathan Downey, CEO at AirWare, which makes hardware for drones. “You have to walk the line of using low-cost sensors available in commercial products and then wrapping that up in software that accounts for failures and deals with them in a reliable way.”
The perfect payload
In fact, that’s exactly what sets the £20,000 drones ($40,550) – made by companies such as Microdrones and Draganfly and used by pros – apart from those available in the shops. Sure, commercial drones can fly for about an hour rather than a few minutes and are made using more expensive components, but it’s reliability that expert users demand.
The most exciting thing about drones, though, is what they can carry. We’re not talking bombs or missiles here, but high-res cameras, laser scanners, and other exotic imaging systems strapped to their undercarriage, the data from which is beamed back to the ground. And the more expensive the drone, the better the sensors. So while the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 packs a 720p HD digital camera, a pro drone such as the Draganflyer X6 could come kitted out with an infrared thermal imaging system.
More after the break...
Being put to work
Dripping in tech bling as they are, it’s no surprise that drones are being put to task on some big projects. Remember the motorbike chase in Skyfall? You have drones to thank. “Directors often want a grand vista as well as intimate detail,” explains Haik Gazarian, director of operations for Flying-Cam, a company that’s supplied drones for James Bond, Harry Potter, and, er, Smurfs 2. “The only way to achieve it is to get close up to the action. Drones offer a safe and reliable way to do that.”
And films are far from their only new workplaces. In July 2013, the first fleet of autonomous marine drones was tested in Toulon as part of the MORPH project, with the aim of creating underwater 3D maps and providing surveillance. The agricultural industry is embracing them, too. “A farmer’s field will be a daily updated Google map,” explains Seydoux.
“With a good camera, he’s able to see every tree or every plant.” The result is better crop management — and big savings. There’s no shortage of applications: from chasing poachers to mapping disaster zones, inspecting structures and delivering food, drones are versatile vehicles.
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.