Drones, like most robots, are designed for jobs that are “dull, dirty or dangerous.” We know what that means in a military context — everything from endless “loitering” over combat zones to remote-controlled warfare with the pilots safely in a trailer in Nevada — but soon civilian drones will be flying commonly overhead here at home. What will they be doing?
The usual assumption is that it will be police surveillance and general snooping. Interestingly, that’s just what people feared when the computer, which had also been introduced as a military technology, started to be used commercially in the 1960s. The worry then was that computers would be used primarily to spy on us, as an arm of Big Brother. Only decades later, once we all had one, did we figure out that they were better at work and entertainment, communicating with each other and generally being welcome additions to our lives. That’s because we could control them and tailor their use to our own needs, which we did amazingly well.
This change is already underway with drones. Personal versions are small, cheap and easy to use. They cost as little as $300 and are GPS-guided fully-autonomous flying robots (my company, 3D Robotics, is one of many making them). They fly themselves, from takeoff to landing, and can even follow the terrain for miles. There are already more in the hands of amateurs than the military, and some of the uses may surprise you. Civilian drones don’t just do the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs better; they can also make the expensive ones cheaper. In a world of Google maps, the advantage of aerial views of the world are clear, but satellites and manned aircraft are expensive and the pictures they take are often too far away or too infrequent to be useful. Drones can get better views, more often. And those shots can be of exactly what you want to see — an anytime, anywhere eye in the sky, controlled by you, not The Man.
Take sports videos. If you’re a windsurfer and want a great YouTube video of your exploits, you’re not going to get that from the shore, and hiring a manned helicopter and camera crew to follow you offshore isn’t cheap. But if you’ve got a “FollowMe” box on your belt, you can just press a button and a quadcopter drone with a camera can take off from the shore, position itself 30 feet up and 30 feet away from you and automatically follow you as you skim the waves, camera trained on you the whole way (when its battery gets low, it can return to the shore and land itself). Fast forward a year or so, and that same FollowMe box will become a FollowMe sticker, which you can put on soccer ball. Now that copter can follow the action of your kid’s soccer game, bringing NFL-quality aerial video to PeeWee sports.
One father has already set his personal drone to follow his kid to the school bus stop. Another team configured a drone to be a personal “periscope”; it flies above your head, giving you a video view from ten feet up. Yet another programmed a drone to fly in front of a runner, like a mock rabbit to a greyhound, encouraging them to pick up the pace.
Commercially, the potential is even greater. Farmers are already using drones to monitor their crops; a weekly overhead picture of a field can give them the information they need to use less chemicals and water on the plants, saving money and the environment. Scientists use drones for wildlife conservation, mapping the nests of endangered species without disturbing them. And energy companies use drones to monitor electric pylons and gas pipelines.
What was once military technology can now be used by children and I’m sure a generation growing up with drones — my kids launch them in the park on weekends — will find better uses than I could ever think of. What we, the technologists, know is that they will soon be cheap and easy enough to be commonplace; what they don’t know is what application will emerge as result. Tomorrow you may think nothing of driving by a farm swarming with robot cropdusters. Or see film sets with hovering cameras. Or skiers followed by personal videodroids. Or, more likely, something I can’t imagine at all that’s better than any of those. That’s what happens when you add “personal” to a technology. It evolves into something new, often more powerful in the hands of regular people than it ever was in the hands of the few.