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Rise of the Drones.

On the potential of flying robots.

By no means lazy.

Male worker bees are called ‘drones’. Without stingers, their sole purpose in life is preservation and propagation of the species – but the name is now better known for designating a species of aerial robots. The very first mechanical drones were only able to take off, fly and crash. In the early years, drones were used like motorized clay pigeon targets in military exercises. Today’s drones have now turned into something quite different. Unmanned aircraft have made huge tremendous evolutionary progress, becoming faster, quieter and lighter. They are able to land and execute complex maneuvers for both military and civilian purposes.

Drones for every purpose.

Because of their technological adaptability, drones can be deployed to places where homo sapiens would be unable to survive. They can help put out fires without burning up, and can detect pathogens without becoming infected. Drones are ideal for disaster relief operations and can transport medicines, banked blood, defibrillators or other relief supplies to difficult-to-reach deployment sites. Some drones are large and powerful enough to compete with private jets or even container ships. The drone genus now consists of a variety of species, which include not only those in the air, but also others exploring the depths of the oceans and the vast expanses of the universe. The police also use drones to pursue criminals. Drones are usually unintelligent, so they have to be controlled, and operated via joystick by a user wearing VR glasses showing the drone’s visual perspective. This is particularly needed for fast maneuvering, like in the World Drone Prix in Dubai.

From niche to industry.

There are more than 700 different providers of drone technology around the world. Analysts expect the worldwide market to exceed 100 billion US dollars by 2020. Seventy billion US dollars will come from the military sector, 17 billion from the consumer sector and 13 from industry and the business. The sector is booming in the US in particular, even though there has only been one major player on the global market: Intel. It is vying for market dominance alongside French start-up Parrot SA and Chinese manufacturer DJI. These three firms are continuously acquiring additional companies and technologies.

Higher, farther ... more complex.

Ever-more sophisticated measuring equipment is being attached to drones to capture the world with greater precision. Such capabilities allow huge structures like wind turbines and dams to be inspected down to the last detail with ease. Shell uses drones equipped with infrared technology to inspect its production facilities for damage. Refineries no longer have to be shut down during a thermal scan by drone. Drones are also used in the warehouses of major online retailers, where they glide between rows of shelves, using RFID technology to record inventories. The logistics industry has naturally started using drones, realizing their advantages, like the popular last-mile solution Amazon Prime Air. And the start-up Nautilus is currently developing a drone concept for transporting entire ship cargo loads across oceans.

More brain for drones.

The advantages offered by drones would be even greater were they able to perform their work entirely autonomously, instead of needing a team, including a pilot, for every assignment. In short, drones need more (swarm) intelligence to enable them to autonomously monitor oil pipelines, highways and hard-to-reach offshore wind farms without human supervision. Effective fleet management is required however for such applications. During the 2017 Super Bowl, LED-equipped drones sailed over the stadium into a formation depicting a huge US flag. The technology is being used now at Disneyland as well.
In addition to Intel, start-ups like Airobotics are developing artificial drone intelligence, which will significantly expand the range of drone applications. The latest procurement contract tender invitation issued by the US Department of Homeland Security gives an indication of this, for the use of drones on the border with Mexico equipped with facial recognition technology. The machines are also supposed to independently gauge risk associated with individuals crossing the border. This requires the aircraft have a real-time connection with a Department database to cross-reference biometric data. One day, perhaps, high-tech drones will even take over the tasks of their hard-working counterparts in the their natural world, as researchers in Japan and the UK are breeding reverse-bionic AI drones for flower pollination plants.

Car vs. Drone.

The automotive industry is just getting started in the use of intelligent drones, the Red Cross and car maker Land Rover having partnered to build an SUV designed to guide rescue units to crisis victims. The SUV is equipped with a drone that takes off from and lands on the roof of the vehicle. The Mercedes-Benz Vision Van has taken the idea further, deploying the technology for a quantum leap in logistics. The vehicle features a fully automated cargo space with integrated drones for autonomous air delivery.

Car-Drone-Hybrid.

Drones equipped with artificial intelligence are the key to individual mobility in the third dimension. The Airbus “Pop.up” concept, for instance, shows how a connection could be made between autonomously driving cars and autonomously flying drones. The modular car-drone hybrid consists of a self-driving chassis and a self-flying drone, each of which transports a passenger capsule. The capsule is also designed to be integrated into other mobility systems, such as the Hyperloop and enable platooning. However, in addition to this hybrid model, there are also manufacturers who may want to make cars completely superfluous. Chinese passenger drone eHang 184 is designed to convey one person through the air via its electric motors. It is currently being tested in Las Vegas, and there are hopes of turning it into a kind of flying on-demand taxi service. This concept was already presented a year ago as part of Uber Elevate. The passengers of such drones need neither a driver’s nor a pilot’s license. All they have to do is enter their destination in the navigation system and wait for the drone to pick them up. Just get in, take off and get out at the destination.

The progress in drone technology seen advancing on almost a daily basis means we can look forward to many new business models and interesting areas of application. Rapid advances can be expected in the near future, especially in the field of goods and passenger transportation. Those interested in finding out more about the latest in drone technology should read the engaging Wired article “Ten Aircraft That Will Revolutionize Aviation”.

Authors: Christian Geiss, Jean-Paul Olivier and Leo Burkhardt