How Drones are transforming technology today

Stuart Dredge Trends

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If Kanye West and Martha Stewart ever fall into conversation at a celebrity soiree, the chances are high that they’ll end up arguing about drones.

Kanye’s not a fan. “Wouldn’t you like to just teach your daughter how to swim without a drone flying? What happens if a drone falls right next to her? Would it electrocute her?” he asked, in a deposition for a lawsuit filed against him by a photographer after an airport confrontation with the star.

“Could it fall and hit her if that paparazzi doesn’t understand how to remote control the drone over their house?” continued West, expanding on his fears of drone-powered intrusion from the press.

If there’s a drone flying over Martha Stewart’s house, it’s likely to be her own. She penned a “Why I Love My Drone” column for Time in July, wondering “what Louis XIV could have accomplished at Versailles if he’d had one” and telling the tale of her first experience with an unmanned flying device.

“In just a few minutes I was hooked. In near silence, the drone rose, hovered, and dove, silently and surreptitiously photographing us and the landscape around us. The photos and video were stunning,” wrote Stewart.

Who’s right? Well, perhaps they both are. It might be illegal to buzz the West/Kardashian residence with a drone, but competition in the Los Angeles paparazzi industry being what it is, someone will probably try. And Stewart is right: drone photography *is* stunning, at its best.

The problem with drones – consumer and commercial drones, to be specific, since military drones is a separate (and hugely controversial) topic – is that it’s easy to get sidetracked by fripperies like celebrity drone-lovers or haters.

Or, indeed, by novelty aspects like “dronies” – a video partly of yourself, shot from a drone, and one of the more irritating tech industry memes of 2014, from individuals showing off to Twitter’s co-opting of the idea as a marketing wheeze at the Cannes Lions festival.

But there are plenty of more important aspects to think about. According to aerospace research firm Teal Group, $6.4bn a year is already being spent on drone technology, albeit with only 11% of this being for non-military uses. By 2024, the company expects that to have risen to $11.5bn a year and 14% respectively.

On the commercial side, three of the biggest technology companies are already contributing to that spending, for their own reasons. Amazon revealed its plans for a drone-powered delivery service called Amazon Prime Air in December 2013, with the aim of shipping products to people within 30 minutes of an order.

“We like to pioneer, we like to explore. We like to go down dark alleys and find out what’s on the other side,” said CEO Jeff Bezos, adding “I don’t want anybody to think this is just around the corner. This is years of additional work at this point.”

That work will include convincing aviation bodies around the world – starting with the FAA in the US – to approve first the testing of such drones, then their introduction into commercial business.

As things stand, Amazon Prime Air would be illegal in the US, but the company is lobbying hard, hoping to follow BP, which in June became the first commercial firm licensed to use drones – in its case, to conduct aerial surveys in Alaska.

A letter to the FAA published in July 2014 asked for permission to test drones to deliver packages weighing five pounds or less. “One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today, resulting in enormous benefits for consumers across the nation,” claimed the company.

Amazon is joined by Facebook, which sees drones as a key part of its Internet.org initiative to bring internet access to emerging access. “We’ve been working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in March.

“Today, we’re sharing some details of the work Facebook’s Connectivity Lab is doing to build drones, satellites and lasers to deliver the internet to everyone.”

That month, Facebook bought UK-based solar-powered drone developer Ascenta, but it’s not the only company in the market for such startups: Google bought another solar-powered drone firm, Titan Aerospace, in April, reportedly trumping an earlier offer by Facebook.

“It is still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring Internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation,” said a Google spokesperson at the time.

The thought of Google, Facebook and Amazon operating networks of drones is enough to bring most internet privacy campaigners out in hives. But Google’s statement pointed to the positive impact that unmanned aerial vehicles can have – with plenty more examples from other kinds of company and organisation.

In the UK, charity the RSPB is using a drone to monitor the nests of endangered bird breeds; in Germany, there’s a trial using small drones to spot young deer hiding in tall grass, to ensure they don’t get caught up in combine harvesters; in Kenya, drones may be part of the answer to cracking down on wildlife poachers.

Startup Matternet is using drones to transport medical supplies to places without easy road access, with its founder Andreas Raptopoulos publicly criticising the focus elsewhere on drones as pizza delivery gadget for entitled Westerners.

“The public risk to transport a pizza around when you can do it perfectly well with all of the infrastructure you already have there?” he said in March. “Why don’t you use the same technology to save somebody’s life when a mother needs medicine or a child needs medicine instead of it being stuck on a lorry on a muddy road?”

Drones as hurricane research tools, drones helping to discover ancient Mexican villages, drones (potentially) helping NASA explore Saturn’s moon Titan… These are the stories that show why drones are one of the most fascinating and important arms of the technology industry in 2014.

Certainly more than dronies, anyway, or Kanye grumbling about what might come buzzing over the garden fence.

There are key questions to be answered around drones and privacy – not just for celebrities – as well as safety, and the usual concerns about whether our politicians are qualified to understand the technology, and just as importantly, legislate in a way that balances commercial goals with protecting our rights.

The ethical debate around military drones is vital, as are questions for Google, Facebook and Amazon about the capabilities of their drones, and how they plan to use them. But conservation, humanitarian aid and scientific research deserve a hearing too. Are drones a good or bad thing? As Zuckerberg might put it: it’s complicated.


Find out more about key tech trends to be explored at our future events on our Scoop.it news curation page, here.

 Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, covering apps and technology for The Guardian, and entertainment technology for Music Ally. He notably interviewed Nest’s Tony Fadell at LeWeb’13 Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.

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