January 23, 2012 AT 8:31 am

Musings on the Future of Drone Technology

(pictured above, the Parrot AR Drone)

By now, you’ve probably seen this article that Phil wrote over on MAKE about how to save the Post Office — one suggestion was that drone aircraft could be used to pick-up and deliver the mail. Though I personally don’t think it will save the Postal Service (assuming the tech existed, it could not be implemented quickly enough at this point), I still thought it was a pretty cool idea. It got me started thinking about these drone things and what they could be used for, so I made up a short list of ideas.

It is by no means exhaustive, and there are several advancements in the technology which would have to occur before the ideas can become reality, but the fun of dreaming about the future is looking passed the limitations of now. A lot of people talk about how drones will revolutionize warfare and surveillance — while definitely true, that’s not really my thing, so I decided instead to focus mostly on public health and safety. This is a partial list, but you can read the whole thing on my blog.

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.

… 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.

… 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.

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9 Comments

  1. How about delivering medical supplies?
    Especially in rural areas or third world countries.

  2. Good post John, and agree for much greater use of drones than just warfare. I think they will be huge in photography, film making, and like you said, killer lighting rigs.

    I admit, “equipped with a suspended blinky sign” got my attention.

    Thought in my head:
    —’hey.. could build that!’—

  3. Someone should remake Capricorn One spoof with Drones.

    I think Drones could be part of action movies.

  4. There is a group using swarms of bots to make flying displays, Im pretty sure the first industry use of it will be in vegas. Personally that is where I expect to see this stuff get used first.

  5. Having just experienced a massive flood (Benton County, Oregon)last week I could have used a drone for scouting routes – often a road would seem to be clear but around the bend you would find a river rushing across it. It would also just have been cool to get an aerial view of the flooding in the flatlands. As it was I had to rely on youtube videos uploaded by people driving around.

  6. @Todd: I think that’s a great idea!

    @Jeremy: GO FOR IT!!!

    @Addidis: I have a feeling you’re right — Vegas is weird in that it’s kind of tied to the past but a lot of futuristic things show up there

    @Nick: Living in a flood-prone area myself, I can definitely see the use for something like that. The challenge is in getting drones to remain stable in high cross-winds and heavy precipitation, but I have a feeling that problem will be resolved in a few years (maybe less!) — not having to worry about the safety/comfort of a human pilot frees us up to try stabilization techniques which we haven’t done before.

  7. Johngineer,

    I think if drones incorporate a gyroscope and are a little more shielded and rugged, they could remain stable in cross-winds and precipitation but it doesn’t mean they aren’t immune to the same rules as regular pilots. I think drones should go to gasoline engines instead of use electric engines. Drones need to be more than toys and they need to be built like real aircraft.

    I think the drones of the future need to be a little more sophisticated all around. They might need to be built by the same people who build planes or light aircraft and their programming needs to be a little more sophisicated.

    Chuck

  8. @Chuck: a gyroscope by itself won’t do the job if you can’t exert proper correcting forces. However, there are other ways to deal with stabilization problems. You could, for example, allow the unit to become unstable in order to restore stability. For example, letting the unit spin on it’s vertical axis makes the whole thing a flying gyro — this is impossible with a human occupant, because it will cause them to black out.

  9. I think drones could be used to search for missing people and or suspects.

    Imagine getting your package sent by a Fed Ex Drone for special delivery.

    I think that getting a license will be dependent upon the number of incidents and people using them. I remember wanting to fly model rockets in the park and the city told me that the engine hook could poke someone’s eye out even though I had insurance, even though I’ve never heard of anybody getting hurt and even though I fly in an empty field. What do you do when they are so against the hobby market?

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