For many people, Amazon‘s announced experiment with drone package delivery was the first suggestion of a civilian future for unmanned aircraft. But in many ways, that future is already here. You may have already seen examples: pint-sized “quadcopters” being flown in local parks or YouTube videos showing soaring aerial views of scenery or action sports, thanks to GoPro cameras carried by personal drones.
What’s remarkable about this, aside from the whole “robots in your backyard!” thing, is that it is not being brought to you by Boeing and the other aerospace giants that make the military drones. Rather, it’s coming from the likes of bluetooth headset makers (Parrot), Chinese manufacturers (DJI) and Silicon Valley startups including my own, 3D Robotics (which, in full disclosure, make some of the technology used in the Amazon prototypes). They cost as little as a few hundred dollars and you can buy them from, yes, Amazon.
This means that today’s drone users are increasingly regular people, and like the first personal computer users three decades ago, they’re finding new applications that suggest a radically different future of flight. Some of these new users are farmers, who early on spotted that drones were a great way to perform crop surveys and field analysis. Unlike satellites, which fly above the clouds and are too expensive to target on demand, farm drones can automatically survey crops every morning. Providing high-resolution maps that highlight problem areas, drones are bringing Big Data to the biggest industry in the world, resulting in less use of water and chemicals and increased yields. And as the drones get cheaper and more autonomous, they can be deployed not just singly but also as swarms, with many small vehicles working together to do the job faster. Manned crop dusters disperse their chemicals widely over plants and soil alike, but precision microdrones could approach the problem more like honeybees, depositing insecticide just where it’s needed.
Likewise for other environmental monitoring, scientists and conservationists are already using low-cost drones to monitor rainforests and watch for poachers, but as they get more automated they can constantly patrol vast wilderness preserves with unblinking thermal vision, tracking animal migration and sending early warning of intruders.
Or take search and rescue. Right now if you’re in the wildernesses and trigger an emergency beacon, the Park Service typically has to start looking for you, even if it’s a false alarm, which is often the case. Soon they may be able to launch a drone instead, which can zero in on the signal, orbiting overhead to relay video back to the rangers and dropping supplies and communications gear if needed. Why put humans in harm’s way when a robot can do the job faster, cheaper and more safely?
Closer to home, architects and real estate agents already use drones to scan buildings, sending them on automatic spirals around the scene to stitch hundreds of pictures into high-resolution 3D maps. Today you can already have a personal drone follow you around, tracking the phone in your pocket, and keeping a camera focused on you for the ultimate selfie. Wind-surfers and skiers use them to video epic exploits from the air and Hollywood uses them to extend camera booms to the sky.
In fact, domestic package delivery like Amazon’s Prime Air may actually be one of the last markets to emerge, as it combines one of the hardest technical challenges for drones – “sense and avoid,” or the ability to detect objects such as trees, telephone wires and birds, to say nothing of manned aircraft. The good news is that the things people worry about most – privacy over their backyards, safety in the air – are already protected by the FAA, which bans the use of drones over built-up areas and above 400 feet without a special approval process. So that means that most of this bottom-up drone innovation is happening in the backyards of drone operators, largely away from other people.
In a sense, personal drones are just following the same “fast, cheap and out of control” path that brought you the wireless Internet. Years ago, the FCC established an “unlicensed spectrum” range where companies could avoid radio interference with technology, not the usual monopoly licenses. The result was WiFi, Bluetooth and most of the other short-range wireless technologies you use today – a grassroots transformation of the communications industry that created tremendous value and innovation.
Today, the equivalent sandbox for drones lies in the FAA’s permitted usage for small and light vehicles for recreational use at low altitude, with range limited to the distance an operator can see. In 2015, the FAA is scheduled to release a new regulatory framework that allows commercial use, too, which could lead to an explosion of entrepreneurship and innovation (although it’s running a year or two behind schedule). If it follows the FCC’s model of establishing a lightly-regulated zone for the least risky applications, you’ll soon see all of the examples above and far more than anyone can imagine today. If it doesn’t, well there’s a big world out there – other countries will take the lead instead. One way or another, the future of aviation is unmanned – the only question is where and how soon.