As Facebook talks drones and the UK police consider trialling the flying tech, Rob Temple (@RobTemple101) investigates the future of drones
Everybody's talking about drones. They're on the front covers of magazines - and not just techy ones - and in newspapers on a daily. Yes, it's true that drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, have been around for decades, especially if you consider their roles in defence and surveillance, but when it comes to the mass consumer market, the hype is in its infancy.
It was in December of 2013 when these machines started to really capture public attention; this was when Amazon - the world's largest online retailer - announced it was testing unmanned drones with a view to using them to zoom goods through the skies to the front doors of customers. Social media went wild, memes were made and we've been waiting for our boxsets to be flown to us ever since.
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos predicted at the time that it would take up to five years for the service to start, both to tweak technology and to wait for permission from the world's aviation authorities. And it's not just Amazon blazing the trail towards drone delivery, but also Google and DHL, and due to very recent developments in European aviation regulations, it looks as if these tech giants will see their machines flying their maiden voyages in Europe within the next year.
More on the rules and hurdles later; first, let's look at some of the other jobs drones could be doing for you in the near future.
It's not just about retail delivery with drones, but also personal delivery. Imagine forgetting your keys, loading up an app and ordering a drone to fly to a storage box, fetch your spare pair and fly them directly to you. This is the service being trialled by the people behind on-demand lifestyle services app BIZZBY, and it's called BIZZBY SKY.
BIZZBY SKY's prototype drone can carry anything up to 500g in weight to a height of 400 feet. The whole flight is filmed for you to monitor and the drone will return home by itself once it's delivered your goods. Founder and CEO of BIZZBY, Rohan Sinclair Luvaglio, told us, "“As the pioneer and leader of on-demand services we want to deliver drones to doors in minutes at the touch of a button on your smartphone. The opportunity is huge if we can get past regulatory hurdles."
"Although it may seem futuristic, technology is advancing rapidly," Luvaglio continues, "and it’s a matter of time before we’re able to roll the service out to the public. Just imagine the possibilities this opens up, from delivering important documents, keys to urgent medical supplies… the sky’s the limit”.
One vital thing that a drone can do for mankind is take on the burden of danger, especially when it comes to heights and hard to reach places. As CCS analyst Ben Wood tells us, "Recreational flying is still a popular user-case but more practical examples such as aerial photography and filming have emerged. Drones are also being used to carry out inspections of difficult to access areas such as roofs and powerlines". Indeed, why dangle a man off a tall building or send someone up in a cherry picker if you can simply fly up a drone, complete with HD camera and video recording, in seconds.
This recording technology is also helping geographers to understand and document changes in landscape. In January, I attended a lecture in which Mark Allan - part of a team from Northumbria University that received the 2014 Land Rover & Royal Geographical Society Bursary - discussed how he's using drone technology to scan 6,000 miles of terrain across the European Alps, pioneering the way scientists understand landslides and glacial erosion. The drones, which mapped the mountains used specially designed roof platforms of modified Land Rover Defender 110's as a landing and reference point.
Materials created from the expedition will be used as part of the National Curriculum in geography, and your kids will be the first to use drones on field trips.
Drones as waiters
Drones delivering your Pina Colada? Believe it or not, this is already happening, on a small but growing scale. According to a report by BBC News, Infinium Robotics has capitalised on the manpower shortages in Singaporean restaurants, and has kitted out a chain with drones that can carry up to 2kg of food and drink, which is about two pints of beer, two glasses of wine and a burger or pizza.
Your first thought might be "drones aren't very good at customer service"; it's pretty hard to make a machine care that your steak is underdone, or that the nuts in your salad will kill you, but Infinium CEO Junyang Woon insists drones are there to work alongside humans, telling the BBC that they will free up staff to "interact more with customers and enhance their dining experience".
You might feel a bit wary of the prospect of being served chips by a pilotless helicopter if you read the report of the drone that crashed into someone's face at a TGI Fridays in New York, but hey, you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette.
Hurdles to jump
The first hurdle is the technology itself. As Ben Wood of CCS highlights, battery life is one of the main problems. "We are still in early days from a technology perspective", he tells us, "but significant improvements have been made in the flyability and robustness of the devices. However, as with other consumer electronics devices, battery technology is proving to be a major challenge – not least because of the sheer power required to keep a drone in the air, but also the weight ratio implications. Because of this most drones have a limited “fly-time” and most owners typically own more than one battery to allows extended flying sessions."
The next major hurdle has been aviation regulations. However, as mentioned earlier, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has just released a new policy framework for drones, putting them in their own category rather than trying to fit them within the rules used for existing traditional aviation. Without getting too bogged down in the specifics (there's a LOT of rules), this is nothing but a big thumbs-up from Europe, basically saying "let's make this happen".
In a statement on March 6, the European aviation community said: "Drones can help create promising new opportunities in Europe, offering sustainable jobs and new prospects for growth both for the manufacturing industry and for future users of drones in all sectors of society. Drones offer new services and applications going beyond traditional aviation and offer the promise to perform existing services in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way. They are a truly transformational technology." The community also stated that it will develop rules and work with businesses to help them fit within safety, security and privacy standard with a bit to "provide drone services everywhere in Europe as from 2016 onwards."
You may also be worried about how much all this tech will all cost you. Well, not much, as you'll be renting rather than buying (recreational use aside). In the same way that driverless Google Cars will lead to ownership-free driving - and thereby the end of all the personal licences and taxes that go with controlling and owning your own vehicle - delivery drones too will be a community thing. As James L. McQuivey of Forrester Research notes, "The unique portability and addressability of drones will ensure that you can always call on a drone you do not own when you need one, just as you will be able to let others use your own drone when they need it, in exchange for a fee, Airbnb style."
Finally, as for concerns surrounding people stealing or even shooting down drones, as Rohan Sinclair Luvaglio says, "that's what laws are for".