Drones aren’t just for the CIA anymore. While Predators and Reapers still patrol the skies of the Middle East and South Asia, automated flight technology has burst into the consumer realm in a big way. Brands, scientists, government services and regular people are taking advantage of cheap and easy to control compact flight systems with decent lift capacity for cargo or equipment. Even former editor of Wired magazine Chris Anderson foresaw the drone trend and left Wired to become CEO of 3D Robotics, a DIY drone-building company. Soon enough drones may be ubiquitous, zipping around the skies on errands, surveillance tasks or even as artistic tools.
Imagine you’re in a field at a summer festival, far from the long lines for food or drinks. You thirst for a beer, or hunger for a burrito, but are unwilling or unable to stand in line for hours. What do you do?
Drones to the rescue! Flying delivery robots have been increasingly experimented with by DIY drone enthusiasts and major brands looking to revolutionize small parcel delivery. Via an app that taps into the user’s GPS location, drone systems can zero in on a particular location and deploy cargo by parachute or manual extraction while hovering. Some developers use straight-flying robots, like the Burrito Bomber that releases a burrito in a parachute-controlled parabola. Others, such as the beer-delivering drone of South Africa, hover high over the target and parachute the cargo directly down. As parachutes are not very accurate these would only really work outside with lots of open space and cooperative crowds.
Enter the big brand. Perhaps the most efficient drone delivery system, and the one most likely to see implementation in cramped urban environments, is manual extraction from a hovering platform shown in the DomiCopter video above. While currently only capable of short trips, the pizza magnate is seriously testing drone delivery and it’s rumored that a Domino’s Flight Academy might be in the works. With longer range drones, a central warehouse could quickly serve a large urban area without being hindered by traffic – and this doesn’t apply to just pizza. Any small parcel could be drone delivered in a city, if the recipients were willing to go up to a roof or down to the sidewalk to receive it. But this would require major legislative approval in addition to improved drone safety, automation and carrying capacity so in the meanwhile some restaurants are serving burgers with hovering delivery trays.
There are so many applications for drones, from simple surveillance to search and rescue, wildlife monitoring and geological 3D mapping. Some very creative uses are popping up in the art world, with arrays of synchronized drones programmed to move together in very precise formations. One of the most stunning examples was the ‘Meet Your Creator’ troupe of 16 quadrotors that danced and manipulated sound and light at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase 2012.
Created by Marshmallow Laser Feast, the show used quadrotor drones with mounted LEDs and motorized mirrors that reflected and diverted light to create floating light sculptures. Check out the behind the scenes on this and some of their other work here.
While the next step may be to bring such exhibitions outside (imagine performances on the the scale of fireworks shows), there is a big legal gray area around the commercial and personal use of drones in public. As more and more people get their hands on this technology and put cameras on them, a serious debate has arisen between protecting freedom of speech and the right to privacy. Some call for less regulation, but that hasn’t prevented a few states from banning drone photography. What this means for the budding industry and its artistic side remains to be seen, but there will be surely some degree of flexibility since many drone activities (like drone paintball) require a mounted camera.
photo via Photocrati
Fortunately there are no such regulations in the wild, where National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols went to get an unprecedented view of lions in the Serengeti. Using a hardy multi-prop camera drone, Nichols’s photos will shed new light on the lives of lions and their prey, as well as many other of the skittish denizens of the Serengeti. His project will be published sometime this year in National Geographic, so we’ll just have to wait to see the latest high-quality drone nature photography.
What does the future hold for everyday drone use? Well it largely depends on what governments around the world will allow. If they crack down on drone use, the only escape may be further up – a notorious file-sharing site revealed plans to host servers in low-orbit to escape capture and jurisdiction. But if all goes well, perhaps swarms of drones will fill the skies after disasters to provide an instant communications and monitoring network. Fully automated, a drone swarm might operate like a flock of birds or a school of fish, performing emergent complex tasks from only a few operational rules.