Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part I)

Drones for Destruction, Construction, and Distribution

Drones, it seems, are everywhere. The news is full of the rapidly expanding use of drones in combat.   The U.S. government uses drones daily to gather intelligence and to kill people.   Other organizations, ranging from organized militaries in China, Israel, and Iran to militias like Hezbollah, aspire to possess similar capabilities.  Amateurs are in the thick of it, too; if a recent online video is to be believed, a few months of effort is all that is necessary to develop a DIY drone capable of deploying DIY antipersonnel ordinance.

Lest we think drones are only used to create mayhem, they are used to create beauty.  Last year's lovely art project Flight Assembled Architecture employed a centrally-controlled swarm of small drones to build a complex, curving tower 6 meters tall.  Operating in a highly controlled environment, fully outfitted with navigational aides, each drone had to position itself precisely in six degrees of freedom (three in space, and three in rotation) in order to place each building block.  As our urban areas become sensor-rich environments, drones will soon have these remarkable navigational capabilities just about anywhere people live at high densities, namely urban environments.

To understand the future capabilities of drones, you need merely think of them as flying smartphones running apps.  That's not a great leap, because smartphones are already used as the brains for some drones.  The availability of standard iPhones and Android phones has enabled a thriving market of third-party apps that provide ever new capabilities to the user.  Drone platforms will benefit from analogous app development.  Moreover, as hardware improves, so will the capabilities of apps.  For example, Broadcom recently announced a new chip that enables the integration of multiple kinds of signals -- GPS, magnetometer, altimeter, wi-fi, cell phone tower, gyroscopes, etc. -- and that "promises to indicate location ultra-precisely, possibly within a few centimeters, vertically and horizontally, indoors and out."  The advertised application of that chip is for cell phones, but you can be sure the chips will find their way into drones, if only via cell phones, and will then quickly be utilized by guidance apps.  Whatever the drone mission may be, there will be an app for that.

When those individual, sensor-laden drones can cooperate, things get even more interesting.   Vijay Kumar's recent TED talk has must-see video of coordinated swarms of quad-rotor drones.  The drones, built at the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, fly in formation, map outdoor and indoor environments, and as an ensemble play music on oversized instruments (see Double-O-Drone).  As you watch the videos, pay close attention to how well the drones understand their own position and speed, and how that information improves their flight capabilities.  When equipped with GPS and other sorts of sensors, drones are clearly capable of not just finding their way around complex environments but also of manipulating those environments.  At the moment, the drones' brains are actually in a stationary computer, with both sensory data and flight instructions wirelessly broadcast to and fro.  Moore's Law guarantees that those brains - including derivatives of the aforementioned Broadcom chip - will soon reside on the drones, thereby enabling real-time, local control, which will be necessary for autonomous operations at any real distance from home base.  The drones will become birds.  But these birds will have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities, substantial load-carrying capacity, and will be able to work together towards ends set by humans.

A company called Matternet is already planning to exploit these capabilities.  The company's initial business model involves transporting goods in developing countries that lack adequate infrastructure.  If this strategy is successful, and if it can be scaled up, it will negate the need to build much of the fixed infrastructure that exists in the developed world.  It is a 21st century version of the Pony Express: think packet-switching, which makes the internet work efficiently, but for atoms rather than for bits.

Matternet plans that the first goods moved this way will be small, high value, perishables like pharmaceuticals.  But cargo size needn't be limited.  As Vijay Kumar pointed out in his TED talk, drones can cooperate to lift and transport larger objects.  While undoubtedly power or fuel will constrain some of these plans until technology catches up to aspirations, drones will inevitably be used to move larger and larger objects over longer and longer distances.  The technology will also be used very soon in the U.S.  The FAA has been directed to come up with rules for commercial drone use by 2015, and must sort out how to enable emergency agencies to use drones in 2012.  There are already 61 organizations in the U.S. with permission to fly drones in civilian airspace.  Yet rather less thought has been given to drone use outside the rules.  We are planning for drones, after a fashion, but what about after they arrive?

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)