The Future of Drones

So many sci-fi movies have shown us a future filled with flying machines – from tiny flying robots to big flying Star Wars droids; from flying cars to entire floating cities. Of course, most of these films didn’t have much truck with propellers. They used much more futuristic stuff like VTOL jets or some form of hypothetical anti-gravity.

Apart from that though, it seems these movies may have actually been on to something. Drones are taking over more than just the various parks that litter our fair cities. They are being implemented in a huge number of industries and are being made to do jobs the average person would never imagine for them. We tend to forget that proper autonomous drones are basically flying robots. Robotics is another area that’s also making huge strides, but one area that remains a challenge is traversing terrain. It turns out it’s way easier to autonomously navigate the sky than the ground. That’s why advanced autopilot for aircraft has been commonplace for many years, but autonomous cars are only now becoming viable.

Future Fighting

Most people probably learned the word “drone” thanks to their prolific use as military intelligence systems and later attack vehicles in the years following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The US military, through its DARPA division, has always been extraordinarily prescient when it comes to developing and anticipating future warfare technologies, but even they did not foresee how pivotal airborne drones would become.

The full robotization of the armed forces on both land, sea, and air is strongly underway. In this century it’s likely that pretty soon first-world nations will have very few actual human beings in combat theaters, preferring remote control and semi- or even full-autonomy.

At the moment there is still strong hesitation from the US-side to give machines full decision-making authority when it comes to lethal action, but the same can’t be said of nations like South Korea, which has placed devastatingly effective automated guns to watch the demilitarized zone between them and North Korea.

The US has no such problem for non-combat tasks though. Aircraft like the Firescout autonomous helicopter can carry out patrol and surveillance mission without any supervision. It will take off from an aircraft carrier and come right back again.

Here is a video of the Firescout in action:

Believe me, it won’t be long before armed versions are put into use.

The future of warfare is probably going to involve all sorts of autonomous vehicles, communicating and coordinating with each other. It’s scary and awesome at the same time.

Future Rescue

Search and rescue remains one of the most grueling things you can ask an aircraft and crew to do. It’s very expensive to keep a helicopter in the air and often rescuers have to give up their air support quite quickly. Drones are changing the face of search and rescue, especially with computer-controlled recognition and smaller-than-ever infrared camera systems. With relatively cheap drones and precise GPS systems, a swarm of drones could cover far more ground, much more quickly, than conventional rescue aircraft. Of course you still need a craft capable of carrying passengers, but this way manned planes need to fly out only once the lost people have been found.

Another interesting idea is that of a medical drone. Check out this video:

So many sci-fi movies have shown us a future filled with flying machines – from tiny flying robots to big flying Star Wars droids; from flying cars to entire floating cities. Of course, most of these films didn’t have much truck with propellers. They used much more futuristic stuff like VTOL jets or some form of hypothetical anti-gravity.

This concept drone carries a device that can restart someone’s heart after cardiac arrest. Since so many people die of cardiac arrest because of long response times, drones like these could really make a difference.

Future Business

There are so many business applications for drones already, but one of the most exciting ones is probably Amazon Prime Air. Here’s a video with professional grumpy old man Jeremy Clarkson to explain it all:

These drones convert between efficient airplane and multirotor mode. They autonomously deliver your package onto the appropriate landing pad and then fly back home.

This is not hypothetical – Amazon has been testing the system for a while now and it seems the main hurdles have to do with regulations and not technology.

I can also foresee drones being used as security patrols, which could bring better security to neighborhoods everywhere. In many countries visible camera systems have been very successful at curbing crime, so imagine what a flying camera could do. We’ve also seen plenty of drones fit with non-lethal crowd control systems such as pepper-spray and paintball markers.

Intelligent drones may also be used as an integrated system to map terrain, explore mines and other underground systems, or even to help with the coordination of other robots doing jobs like construction.

It seems that the possible uses of drones are only limited by the imagination of businesses. That future filled with a sky of flying machines now seems closer than ever.

Future Power

One problem is that most drones that you or I have access to have flight times measured in minutes; that seriously dampens some of the practical uses for these machines. It is, of course, perfectly possible to put a gas-powered internal combustion engine in there. RC aircraft have used these for ages until LiPo batteries and other technologies made it practical to go electric.

In the modern age of climate change and carbon taxes it’s unlikely that people will accept hundreds of dirty, smoke-belching aircraft flying overhead, though. So clearly some alternative source of energy is needed. Some large autonomous aircraft are using solar power to keep them up for extended periods of time. These are mostly fixed-wing craft that don’t require high amounts of energy, but there have been some successful experiments with solar-powered quadcopters too.

One very interesting idea is to use a hydrogen fuel cell. These can be refueled quickly, produce electricity directly, have a higher energy capacity than LiPos, and can be a clean form of energy if you use the right source of electricity to make the hydrogen.

The Montreal-based EnergyOr Technologies company recently demonstrated a large multirotor using a fuel cell system. The craft set the flight duration record for this class of aircraft at 2 hours, 12 minutes, and 46 seconds.

You can check out the video here:

Battery technology itself is set to improve immensely with fast-charging, high-capacity battery prototypes undergoing testing in labs all over the world.

Once the issue of juice is sorted out, I bet we’ll see a boom in drone application.

Future Imperfect

Of course, a drone-filled future leaves us with a lot of questions. How will air traffic control work? Won’t people just shoot delivery drones down to get their packages? There’s clearly a lot of thinking that still has to go into this idea, but drones are a technology whose time has come. So we might as well enjoy the ride.

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