The Drone Race
Drones and robots will soon do everything from food delivery to household chores and even provide companionship.
They can guard borders, inspect oil rigs, and transport life-saving medications to out-of-the-way locations. The 21st century has delivered aeronautical worker bees with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man’s wildest flights of fancy. Accompanying the new technology is a whole lot of buzz about the way they are going to single-handedly transform daily life.
Formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones essentially are flying robots that get their wings via remote control or embedded computer-controlled flight plans that work in tandem with GPS. They can be as large as commercial airliners or as small as the palm of a hand.
But this simplistic definition does not begin to convey the variety of the devices and the breadth of applications that have captured popular imagination since their debut for domestic use in 2005.
In theory, there’s no task too large or too small, too high-profile or low-priority for drones to do. Proponents see them testing air quality, inspecting insurance claims, delivering mail, surveying crops, tracking wildlife, fighting crime, providing visuals of sports events, guarding ancient ruins, and producing aerial videos in real estate deals. And that’s just the tip of the wing.
In reality, though, there are major obstacles to overcome. Drones have to learn to fly longer, better, and safer so they don’t cause crashes in the sky or accidentally drop packages on pedestrians on the ground.
And then there’s the privacy issue: How close is too close to a house or a business for the eye of the drone?
The Future is Here
Drones are dream devices and there’s no shortage of wild ideas for putting them to use in the sky. Here are some future projects that may or may not fly.
In the next couple of decades, seniors may be relying upon drones to serve as housekeepers and caretakers. Dr. Naira Hovakimyanff, a roboticist at the University of Illinois, recently received a $1.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation to design small drones to perform everyday tasks such as in-house deliveries of medicines.
In Africa, drones are being used to detect the spread of a new strain of malaria. Deforestation is changing the habits of mosquitoes, so drones are flying with them, mapping their new paths. The data is delivered to doctors so they can compare it to patient records and detect disease-spread patterns.
Drones are not only putting out forest fires, but they are also are starting them. The U.S. Forest Service routinely uses fire to fight fire in an effort to maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem. The drone, developed by a team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, eliminates the need for humans to do this dangerous job.
A drone got up close and personal to a Bryde’s whale feeding its calf, an act that had rarely been seen in the wild. Drones also have given a new meaning to whale watching, providing footage of whale snot, whales hunting sharks, and sharks eating whales.
Farmers are reaping great benefits from drones, which provide a birds-eye view of crops and help with crop management. Irrigation, pest and fungal issues are exposed; healthy and unhealthy plants become apparent; and surveys can be conducted on a regular timetable. So great is the potential that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, estimates that 80 percent of the commercial drone market will be used for this work.
Ehang’s 184, the world’s first Autonomous Aerial Vehicle, is a sky taxi designed to pick up and drop off passengers. Developed in China, the eight-propeller drone, which resembles a helicopter, relies upon automated flight systems selected via a 12-inch touchscreen. It not only navigates, but it also chats with air traffic controllers and flies around air obstacles.
For the hobbyists, there’s an on-the-fly wallet drone that charges inside its case without wires or access to a USB port. And there’s FLYBi, the world’s first camera-equipped drone that tracks the user’s head movement and streams it to visual-reality goggles.
In 2014, drones served as Santa’s elves at TGI Fridays in the United Kingdom. Dressed up in Christmas mistletoe, they hovered over diners’ tables to prompt couples to kiss.
Several companies have been testing drones on medical missions, one of the more viable and desired applications. Flirtey, a drone startup based in Reno, Nevada, is one of these pioneers. In March 2016, it completed the first FAA-approved drone delivery in an urban area. The drone relied only upon a GPS-programmed half-mile flight path to drop food, water, and a first-aid kit in Hawthorne, Nevada. And in June 2016, it conducted the first ship-to-shore drone delivery to demonstrate how UAVs can provide lifesaving aid for victims of natural and man-made disasters ranging from hurricanes to power outages.
However, the future of daily drone door-to-door package delivery, the most talked about application, is, for the most part, up in the air. Although China’s SF-Express, the country’s largest mail carrier, is delivering some 500 packages a day, and ecommerce giant JD.com is flying packages to distribution centers in rural Jiangsu province for home delivery, Domino’s won’t be flying pepperoni pizza to your home any time soon. According to a spokesperson for the international restaurant chain, the 2013 demo by a UK master franchisee was a PR stunt: The drone was real, but the delivery was fake. If you choose to dine out in Singapore, however, your waiter could have wings: Infinium Robotics has developed a drone that can fly up to 4.4 pounds of food right to the table.
The hurdles for outdoor drones are especially high in the United States, where stringent FAA rules issued in June 2016 left many prospective projects by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Walmart grounded. The regulations require drones up to 55 pounds to fly only in daylight, lower than 400 feet in the air, and within sight of their operators.
Workhorse Group Inc., in Loveland, Ohio, has been testing small retractable drones that are attached to the top of the electric delivery trucks it manufactures. These pop-off drones, developed with the University of Cincinnati, deliver to destinations a mile away. The company’s battery-equipped HorseFly weighs 18 pounds and is designed to carry packages of up to 10 pounds on round-trip flights of two miles. When it lands on the truck’s roof, it automatically recharges.
The cool factor aside, experts and enthusiasts are advocating drone door-to-door deliveries because they are cost-effective and efficient: Drones don’t run on gasoline and they don’t get stuck in traffic jams.
Meanwhile, so-called ground drones, like Estonia-based Starship Technologies’ delivery bots, are riding into the no-fly zone. Invented by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, the Internet-connected drones, which look like beer coolers, hold up to two bags of groceries and find their way using 3D technology.
In the United States, the FAA rules for indoor drones are less strict, and their use is increasing dramatically with major retailers like Amazon and Walmart using UAVs in their warehouses to do time-consuming tasks like inventory. The remotely controlled devices take photos of items and notify the user when the product is out of stock or labeled incorrectly. The contained space of a warehouse allows for greater control of the device, which has a short battery life and is prone to crash into whatever gets in the way.
The home front may be the final frontier for drones, and someday every man, woman, and child may have a drone maid, butler, and valet. Already, there’s a prototype for a window-cleaning drone from a German startup called (what else?) Window Cleaning Drones. Its swarming drones scrub up to 430 square feet per each half-hour flight.
And there’s Mab, an in-design rolling “flying fairy” that scans the room and releases 908 tiny robots who are armed with water and cleaning solution. The winner of the 2013 Electrolux Design Lab competition, the Mab’s drones are equipped with energy-saving solar panels on their wings.
While the drones are busy cleaning your house, the Hawkeye will make sure nobody will clean out your house. The prototype, billed as the “first-ever fully autonomous Indoor Drone Security Guard,” not only detects intruders, but sounds an alarm and stuns them with bright strobe lights. An optional microphone also allows the homeowner to yell at the burglars remotely.
Someday, there may even be robots that replace healthcare aides and nurses. The home health robot Pillo, which is in development, is not so much a pill dispenser as a personal assistant. Synced to cellphones and other devices, it recognizes the patient’s face, answers health questions, and even dials emergency contacts.
Your next surgeon could very well be a mini drone. The Sheffield Center for Robotics in the United Kingdom has created prototypes that one day could be engineered to swarm to cancerous tumors and release chemotherapy. And in tests on mice, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Columbia University Medical Center in New York City are arming drones with nanomedicines that are slowly released in blocked coronary arteries.
As the experiments and demonstrations continue, so does the research. While drones have all but conquered the skies, they still have not learned to swim. At Rutgers University, Associate Prof. F. Javier Diez and his team of graduate and undergraduate students have developed the world’s first amphibian drone.
“People have been trying for decades to design one that works in the air and in the water,” he says. “We discovered that you need a set of double propellers—one that pushes it up into the air and one that pulls it down into the water.”
Diez, whose work is being funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, says the high-flying, deep-diving drone, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds and uses some of the same battery components that power Tesla Motors’ electric cars, will be ideal for inspecting the hard-for-humans-to-get-to bottoms of bridges and ships, piers and oil platforms, and fiber-optic cables.
As drone technology progresses, one thing is sure: Our skies—and our lives—will never be the same.
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