It seems like drones are flying around everywhere these days. The Pentagon's got them, of course, as do other militaries. Police want them. Journalists and photographers are using them.
Drones are proving useful for monitoring animals. An Australian state government is exploring the use of drones to prevent shark attacks. Google is funding drones to watch for rhino poachers. Scientists in China are using drones to monitor yak herds.
And, of course, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told 60 Minutes that his company wants to deliver packages using drones.
Amazon shows a video of its imagined drone delivery system in action. But because commercial drone use is mostly illegal in the U.S., the retailer had to film the demo abroad. (The FAA might legalize them by 2015.)
Amazon demonstrates its plan to use drones to deliver packages.
In fact, the legality of drone use for individuals is still up in the air, as it were.
Laws governing consumer drones are also in their infancy. Most states have debated drone laws, but so far only nine have passed laws restricting drone use for either citizens or police: Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Each of these laws is unique.
Meanwhile, consumer drones are generally available. The most popular model, called the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, is controlled with an Android or iOS device and costs about $300. A built-in camera beams a video feed to your phone as you fly it for live viewing or recording. (My son has one.)
Another intriguing product is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter, which is similar to the Parrot AR.Drone but higher-end. It has a higher-resolution camera that can be independently controlled using an Android or iOS app (You can stop, start and tilt the camera while the drone is airborne). The Phantom 2 Vision costs about $1,199.
Today's consumer drones don't seem like anything other than fancy remote-controlled helicopters -- the kind of thing that hobbyists have been flying for decades in parks and open fields. That's exactly what they are, with some notable exceptions. For example, when you stop controlling one of these drones, it continues to hover in place rather than dropping from the sky. And they can be controlled and potentially programmed via smartphone and tablet apps.
Tomorrow's consumer drones will be far more intelligent. In fact, they'll be flying robots.
The Vienna University of Technology is working on a drone called the SmartCopter, which is designed to be a self-navigating indoor drone. It's "brain" is an off-the-shelf Samsung Galaxy S II Android phone. Today, the SmartCopter can, for example, fly around indoors, navigating by "markers" placed throughout the building that the drone uses to create maps of where it can fly. Future versions will skip the markers, and the drone will create its own maps by recording the locations of walls and ceilings.
The university's project is just one of hundreds of drone research initiatives going on at companies and universities worldwide. The goal is to develop increasingly intelligent, autonomous drones that are cheap and easy enough for anyone to use.
Frog is working on the Guardian Angel, a self-flying drone that watches over you and sets your pace while you're out for a run. (Photo: Frog)
It's reasonable to expect that within a few years, self-flying drones that use their own cameras and sensors to map indoor environments -- and use GPS and cell-tower triangulation to map outdoor spaces -- will be widely available and relatively affordable.
Because they'll be robots, we'll use them less like toy planes and more like awesome consumer electronics devices that do real work for us.
Here are some examples of the roles that home robot-drones will be able to take on:
1. Photographer. When you're at a family barbecue and everybody huddles together for a group photograph, you'll be able to use a smartphone app to tell your drone to fly up and take pictures of the group. Or, if you're into extreme sports, your personal drone will be able to follow you and film you as you base-jump, snowboard or surf.
2. Running coach. When you go running, your self-flying drone will fly ahead of you to set the pace based on your heart rate or fitness goals.
3. Home security guard. If you're sound asleep and your security system's motion and sound sensors detect something happening in or around your house, a drone will activate itself and fly to the site to determine the nature of the problem. If image-detection software decides that an intruder has entered the house, or that your home or family's security or safety has otherwise been compromised, it will set off an alarm and stream a live video of the situation to your phone. If nothing important is happening, the drone will quietly return to its wireless-charging base and go back to sleep.
4. Personal servant. Say you're getting ready to leave for work but remember that you left your keys upstairs: You'll be able to tell your drone to go get them, and the device will fly upstairs, locate the keys, use a hook or claw to grab them and then fly back down and bring them to you. You could also have it deliver things within the house or throughout your neighborhood. For example, you could hand the drone a bag of holiday cookies and tell it to fly off and deliver the cookies to the mail carrier as he makes the rounds on your street; you could even have it share a message that it would deliver in a Siri-like robot voice.
Those are just a few examples of the thousands of things that drones will be able to do for us. Remember that drones will be app-controlled. Several years ago, before smartphones had apps, if we had tried to guess what those devices would be able to do in the future, we never would have imagined the incredible uses we have for them today. The same will be true of drones: The coolest applications are the ones yet to be thought of.
Will Amazon ever really use drones to deliver packages?
Who knows? What really matters is that Amazon will deliver drones to us, inside packages. Very soon, autonomous, intelligent drones with processing and sensor abilities far beyond today's best smartphones will become mainstream consumer electronics devices.
Think of them as home robots that fly.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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