Autonomous flying aircraft remain controversial, but drone advocates believe the sky’s the limit.
This year’s must-have holiday gift may be next year’s big-data opportunity. That’s the real potential for drones, according to Chris Anderson.
“With drones, essentially we’re putting big data sensors in the air,” said Anderson in an interview with iQ. The author of The Long Tail and Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson is the former Wired Magazine editor-in-chief who founded DYIDrones before becoming co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a maker of drone systems.
For him, drones are destined to be much more than flying robotic toys or even sophisticated military tools. They can benefit everything from farming and building construction to search and rescue missions, ecological studies and so much more.
These miniature airplane or helicopter models are remote controlled, often via apps on smartphones, tablets or laptops. Many are programmed to autonomously follow their owner using GPS.
They’re bringing new perspectives to Hollywood filmmakers and video-selfie enthusiasts, but they have much greater potential: the ability to help us better understand our environment.
Like a growing number of drone advocates, Anderson sees airspace as a mostly untapped area for life-changing innovations that could result in a completely new economy.
Just before Christmas, Bloomberg reported that Amazon was on track to sell 10,000 drones a month and that Atlanta Hobby, one of the country’s largest civilian drone suppliers, was experiencing a 10-fold increase in business over the past five years, reaching $20 million annually.
“The military market is about $18 billion, and the [U.S.] consumer market is now about $1 billion,” said Anderson in a recent interview with GeekWire. “And then we’re about to see the launch of the commercial market, which I think will be bigger than both of them combined.”
The commercial market in the United States remains stalled by federal regulations, but unmanned aircraft are expected to be integrated into national airspace in 2015, if not soon after. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International believes that once new regulations are in place, drones will have an economic impact surpassing $13.6 billion in the first year, reaching more than $82 billion and accounting for more than 100,000 new jobs by 2025.
Commercial drone use has made more headway in places like Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, according to Mario Mairena, AUVSI’s senior government relations manager. He told iQ that, for decades, farmers in Japan have been using unmanned helicopters to assist them with precision irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide application and crop inspection.
Popularity of Personal Drones
The Federal Aviation Administration requires proper authorization for unmanned aircraft systems but allows hobby and recreational use of drones up to 400 feet.
In December, the FAA teamed with drone-industry organizations to launch Know Before You Fly, a website to teach drone hobbyists how to operate their drones safely and keep them in compliance with federal drone law.
Eddie Codal got into drones about two years ago. During that time, the livestreaming video specialist has flown his HD video camera-equipped quadcopter over many landscapes, including the Nevada desert during Burning Man in 2013.
“While two years is not very long, it is a lifetime in the development of consumer drone technology,” he said.
Cheap, easy, ready-to-fly quadcopters have proliferated because most drone components are commodities these days, Codel said.
“Anyone can build their own drone with a little bit of research and not much money.”
He recently built a 250 quadcopter.
“DJI and 3D Robotics are the ones innovating right now,” said Codel. “DJI has the consumer market share, while 3D Robotics has the flight control system platform that startups and hackers use to build upon. Parrot and GoPro are ones to watch.”
MEMs, or microelectromechanical systems from the 1980s, played an initial role in miniaturizing computing components, but Anderson pegs the boom in drones to the rise of smartphones in 2007, which increased competition and lowered the cost for hardware components.
“That was the year the planets converged,” he said. It was when wearable company FitBit was born, along with the term Internet of Things, the maker movement, and when Ardruino technology and Make magazine took off.
“Everything accelerated like never before because of economies of scale.”
Now anyone can buy stand-alone components, such as accelerometers and tiny cameras. What would’ve cost $100,000 less than 10 years ago costs less than $10 today, he said.
“Industries around drones are being transformed by Moore’s Law,” said Anderson. “It was too expensive to do this before, but today we are able to capture a half a terabyte per hour per drone using standard camera to capture pictures and videos.”
Today, 90 percent of consumers with drones use them to make personal videos, he said.
“It’s the Golden Age of personal videography. The only tool [movie director Steven] Spielberg has that we don’t is a camera boom, but that’s what a drone does.”
Just how YouTube sparked the GoPro camera craze, Anderson sees GoPro cameras feeding the consumer drone phenomenon because it gives people better angles and more creative views.
Potential for Good
Because drones are “cool” now, they’re a good way to attract young people to science, said Chad Jenkins, a computer science professor who heads Brown University’s Robots, Learning and Autonomy Lab, which develops software for controlling robots remotely via the Internet.
Jenkins said he was amazed recently to see five different types of drones being sold in an airport electronics shop. They ranged from just $40 to about $300.
“If we can make these tools accessible and cheap enough that everybody can use them, I think that could be a huge win for our nation’s science education efforts, including the workforce that we actually need,” said Jenkins.
Gizmag recently listed some surprising uses for drones in different parts of the world. Some examples included monitoring for malaria in the forests of Maylasia and the Philippines, delivering medicine to remote areas in Germany, detecting landmines in Bosnia-Herzegovina and spotting poachers of endangered animals in Africa and along the coast of Belize.
Steve Cousins, a former Xerox PARC lab head, is now the CEO of Savioke, a company that makes personal robots for the service industry. He is also part of a group of robot enthusiasts called Robots for Humanity, which devises ways to help disabled people use robots.
Cousins took part in a TED talk last year, along with Brown University’s Jenkins and a California resident named Henry Evans — a former chief financial officer in Silicon Valley who became mute and paraplegic after a stroke in 2003.
The talk showed how Evans uses both a drone and a personal robot on wheels to do things around his house that he can’t do alone. The first thing Evans did when he launched his drone was send it to his garden, giving him a virtual view of it.
“He’s in a wheelchair — he can’t go inside the garden and look in it,” Jenkins said.
Then Evans sent the drone to inspect the solar panels on his home’s roof. Evans controls the drone using a camera and piloting mechanism that works by tracking Evans’ eye movements.
Drone innovation is tapping into the new world of wearable technology.
Christoph Kohstall and his company Nixie recently won Intel’s Make it Wearable contest, a competition held in 2014 to encourage inventors to create innovative wearables using Intel’s Edison technology. The Nixie, when it’s finished, will be a tiny quadcopter drone with a camera built into it that you wear on your wrist like a bracelet. When you flip your wrist, the drone will take off, take a photograph of you, and fly back.
With a drone, “You can interact physically with the world around you in a much wider circle,” Kohstall said. “You can interact with the world beyond your own reach. This is the beauty of drones.”
What’s Next for Drones?
Anderson and Codel believe drones need to get smarter.
“Object detection and avoidance is the holy grail of consumer drone tech,” said Codel.
“Manned aircraft have numerous systems to detect objects around them, but those systems are currently much too expensive to outfit on a typical consumer quadcopter or even higher end heavy lifter octocopter drones.”
To be autonomous, drones have to have better computer vision, said Anderson.
“They need better sensors and more powerful processors and algorithms,” he said. “They are all connected as part of the Internet of Things, so will all of that computing be done on the drone, across multiple drones, in the cloud or on smartphones?”
While battery innovation is moving slowly, at about 8 percent per year, Anderson said you can do a lot in 20 minutes in the air
“You can capture a lot of footage in 20 minutes. When batteries run out, just pop in new ones and put it back into the sky,” he said.
Drones are a magnet for all sorts of regulatory issues and privacy concerns, not unlike other new tech that introduces new ethical and legal challenges.
Anderson points to the early days of smartphones, satellites and the advent of Google Maps and Facebook. “Privacy is not static,” he said. “It changes one generation to the next and is influenced by location. No one size fits all.”
In order for the United States to catch up to other parts of the world, Anderson suggests having fun and remaining diligent.
“We all have an obligation to show what being responsibility means,” he said.
Smarter, Safer Drones
In his keynote kicking off the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich show how Intel RealSense 3D camera technology can help drones become more autonomous.
A team from Ascending Technologies joined him on stage to show how a drone build with an Intel processor and Intel RealSense technology could fly without a pilot’s radio controller. As it flew around, the team played drone pong, showing how the drone can avoid objects by always finding a middle space between two people as one or the other approached.
Krzanich also played his own version of King of Drones, showing how smarter, better visually equipped drones can fly through an obstacle course without bumping into walls and even finding narrow passage ways.
Here is a flight through a California Redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
William Harless contributed to this story.
Photo credits: Eddie Codel on San Francisco rooftop by Doctor Popular. Chris Anderson flying drone is by 3D Robotics. Codel at his desk with 250 quadcopter by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid. Codel building drones at Science Hack Day by Matt Biddulph.