The Future of Drones…

  • My friend Phil loves to talk about drones. There will be drones in the future, he says: drones will deliver the mail, drones will be used to gather news, etc. He sure does love them drones. So here’s a list of a few things I think drones will do in the future.

    Drones will…

    … direct traffic: There is an accident or fuel spill or something on a highway. The police car rolls up: now the officer has to investigate the situation _and_ control/avoid the traffic at the same time, or wait for a second officer to show up. In the future, a drone — launched from the roof of a police car or emergency vehicle and equipped with a suspended blinky sign — will hover in place keeping traffic a safe distance away. The message on the sign will be remotely controlled by the officer (who can update it in real time) and it will tell you what’s going on: “keep to the left” or “slow down, accident ahead” or “oil on roadway: proceed with caution”, etc. They could also provide temporary traffic signals in the case of a power outage, where the regular stoplights might cease to function.

    … help firefighters working structure fires: Drones will go airborne and scope out a burning building from above, allowing a bird’s eye view of the fire and helping track how it spreads. A camera (possibly IR) feed relayed to the ground will be useful in detecting an impending roof collapse or locating trapped survivors that the firefighters on the ground cannot see. These drones might also carry grappling hook ropes into position, to aid in either pulling a building down or providing an escape route. In addition, they will…

    … be equipped with powerful lights. This can be used in emergency situations for lighting large, outdoor areas quickly. It can also be used by filmmakers and photographers to provide high-angle focused or diffused light sources. I can’t tell you how many shoots I’ve done where I wished for an easily positioned (and controllable) overhead light.

    … build sandbag levees: Heavy-duty drones will be given the repetitive and arduous task of building sandbag levees before an impending flood. Structure building drones already exist, and this is a natural extension of such capability. This frees up human volunteers to concentrate on other areas, such as evacuation.

    … clean windows on the upper floors of buildings: because it’s really cold up there.

    … transport clean water: one of the biggest problems in developing countries is the lack of fresh, clean water. Contaminated or dirty water causes all sorts of diseases, including dysentery, but often sources of clean water are a day’s walk away or more. Sometimes pipelines are not an option either, due to geography or other barriers. Water-bearing drones (“aquarians”) can be used to carry water from the clean sources to the people who need it.

    … decorate very large Christmas trees: in my lifetime, I expect to see the tree at Rockefeller Center get this treatment, after which I will eat some astronaut ice cream on my hover-yacht, while watching my totally open-source TV (because it’s the future, yo).

    … inspect high-tension power and telephone lines: this is currently done by people in helicopters, and it is quite dangerous. Drones don’t care, because drones are fearless.

    … deliver takeout food: until we get widespread replication technology, we’ll have drones. Drones are naturally suited to delivering small, uniform packages (like Bento boxes, for example). I imagine something along the lines of the Indian Dabbawala industry, which is a vast delivery network for lunchtime food that uses uniform payload containers and an efficient routing system to make the rounds. Eventually, your lunchtime lo mein will eventually be delivered to you by an autonomous flying robot.

    … chase away birds at airports: birds getting sucked into jet engines poses a serious safety risk, particularly on takeoff and landing. This problem is currently dealt with by using decoys or actively hunting the birds. A squadron of drones could be useful flying around in pseudo-random low-level patterns and generally creating an unfriendly environment for the birds.

    … become integral tools of augmented reality: I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for a bit about using drones for augmented reality. The Parrot AR (in all its photo studio glory, above) is one type of ARdrone — the HD camera and smartphone control allow you to augment your reality by giving yourself a new point of perspective. My idea is nothing like that, really. Rather, I’m imagining fog machines mounted on drones (downdraft turbulence problems anticipated). There’s one set of drones which drop a sheet of fog and emit sound, and another set which projects images or movies onto said fog sheet. This means you could deploy actors anywhere on earth, and have them play out some narrative. For whatever reason, the spark for this idea was the Marty Robbins song El Paso*. I imagine an army of drones playing out this whole tragedy across the breadth of the West Texas desert. First in the cantina, where we see the dancing Falina in her grand dress and the gunfight, then the subsequent flight across the desert, and finally (dramatic pause) the inevitable return and puff of smoke from the fatal shot. This idea in particular has the potential to go from avant-garde to mass production very quickly.

    Now, obviously, we need to refine drone technology a bit to accomplish a lot of these things. For example, current (affordable, non-military) drones are not stable in high crosswinds. For the firefighting example above, they will also need to be stable in the presence of strong thermal updrafts and higher temps. In the case of the levee construction drones, they will need to be able to operate in the rain as well, and lift loads upwards of 50 pounds. I’m confident all of these problems will be solved, though, because the initial research cost pales in comparison to the savings and efficiency increase, as well as added safety. So there you have it. If you have your own ideas about things drones can be used for, post them up in the comments!

    *this is a great song musically, and the lyrics are well-written, but I could do without the ‘woman as evil temptress’ trope.