The inevitable ascent of personal drones


Drones for commercial and personal use have become a big part of tech news. In recent years, there has been a ton of innovation that has lead to some pretty interesting results. It seems today that drones will be a large part of our future and will impact our society both positively and negatively. In this piece, I am going to introduce what these drones are, talk about some of their potential uses, and then discuss what this will mean for the drone filled world it seems that we are headed toward.

For those who have not seen, heard or read about the type of drones that I am talking about, they are essentially miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) rotorcrafts with three or more rotors. They vary in size, but most of them take up about as much space as a backpack. The most common rotorcrafts have four rotors and are called quadrotor helicopters or quadcopters. Innovators have developed the technology for these vehicles to be completely autonomous. This means that there doesn’t need to be anybody controlling or steering the rotorcraft. By having various vision sensors attached to the rotorcrafts, the vehicles can be completely aware of their surroundings.

The technology has come so far as to allow rotorcrafts to even “play tennis” with each other by hitting a ball back and forth. They can also be programmed to do things such as fly around with a glass of wine balanced on top and play musical instruments. Point being, rotorcrafts are incredibly versatile and athletic, making them able to accomplish many tasks.

Amazon has started a program called “Amazon Air,” which will utilize rotorcrafts to deliver products ordered online to people’s homes. Imagine ordering something on Amazon, or from anywhere for that matter, and having it delivered to your front door by a drone within no time. There has even been talk of a ‘tacocopter’ to deliver tacos to people in the San Francisco Bay area. I expect that drones will revolutionize most types of distribution companies.

Drones could be used for personal surveillance. Parents could have drones fly over their kids as they walk to school, or have a drone check out what that sound was in the kitchen at night. Fifteen years ago, Bill Gates said most Americans would own a personal computer.  I believe that in fifteen years, most Americans will own personal drones. Imagine how seamlessly drones could be interfaced with a smartphone… just a click and the keys I left at home are flying to work. Today, drones are already used for purposes such as mapping of landscapes (often used in farming), wild life photography, weather monitoring, military surveillance, and disaster relief.

With so many practical applications and all the ways companies could profit from using drones, their emergence into our airspace seems inevitable. The FAA has begun research on commercial integration of drones in six different states, and Congress is pushing the FAA to have a plan for drone use in commercial airspace by 2015. While currently there are strict regulations on drone usage (they must be within operators’ eyesight and remain below an altitude of 400 feet), a new federal plan that would allow for services like Amazon Air seems eminent.

There are some obvious problems with all of this, and safety is the first that comes to mind. How long is it going to be before one of the vehicles flies through someone’s windshield, crashes into a building or worse? There are plans to regulate how heavy a UAV can be, but flying rotary blades will always have some element of danger regardless of their weight.

And then there is the problem of security. Of course, these drones can be equipped with cameras. While I personally don’t really want the US government watching my every move, it is an even greater problem to have companies like Amazon collecting data about my daily life with flying cameras. And what happens if there is a security breach and someone with truly ill intentions gains access to a live view of our entire country? Even if these circumstances are made impossible, the public will never be sure. With the presence of drones, the public might just have to get used to the notion that someone might always be watching, which seems too reminiscent of Brave New World.

The question to ask is: are they worth it? Clearly this is a very subjective question. Like with any new revolutionary technology, it takes time to develop. It was impossible to know the direction smart phones would take just five years ago. From that standpoint, it is difficult for me to comment on the entire potential advantages of drones. What I will say is that the possibilities for them seem almost endless.

However, endless possibilities can be good and bad, just like with smartphones. It was hard to imagine that the world’s information would be organized inside our pockets, but it was also hard to see that this would cause a cultural change of being constantly distracted by our phones. These type of trade-offs will likely accompany drones as well. However, regardless of whether drones are judged to be worth all the possible drawbacks, it does seem as though they will be a part of our future. So, I guess we should get ready for them.

1 Comment

  1. “While I personally don’t really want the US government watching my every move […] the public might just have to get used to the notion that someone might always be watching, which seems too reminiscent of Brave New World.” It already does and it doesn’t require flying a visible battery-operated helicopter. Does “NSA” ring a bell?

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