From delivering packages to photographing weddings, drones have moved from unique to ubiquitous. Drones started out as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the rarified realm of military operations, but who can arrest the definitive march of technology?
Drones fascinate us because they play to our most innate desires of flight and control. A drone is not a specific product or a technology but an emergent class of products whose applications are only limited by our imagination.
Today, we are hearing about airborne, selfdriving taxis and drone deliveries. Modern drones are best characterised as autonomous, though there are still applications that rely on remote control of some kind. They can be thought of as airborne robots that are designed to solve specific problems. In terms of technology, they combine a plethora of ideas from various fields. Drones use robotics for fine manoeuvring and manipulation specific to the task at hand. For recognition of the objects of interest, obstacle avoidance, risk identification etc. they use sophisticated vision and AI techniques. The science of flight is imperative for drones to fly, of course. They rely on advanced navigation, both inbuilt and in the cloud, to reach the target area. And so forth.
In terms of applications, there are two large classes of civilian applications that they fall into. One class deals with tasks that cannot be performed by humans. Drones are (or will be) used in hazardous situations or disaster areas since they can really go where no man can or should. They can be used to detect and control nuclear contamination. They can help clean up chemical spills. They can deal with forest fires or help in rescue operations. One can imagine kamikaze drones detecting and blowing up mines, thus saving human lives.
The other class of applications is about tasks that can be done more efficiently than existing techniques. Interestingly, there are many use cases inagriculture that fall in this category. Drones can be used not only to survey crops, but also to dispense fertilizers and pesticides. Some day, hordes of tiny drones will be used to pollinate crops. The popular use of drones for delivery is of course addressing efficiency of the supply chain. They can be used for surveillance, aerial videography, film-making, mapping. The possibilities are endless.
The rise of drones opens up a regulatory quagmire. Safety and privacy are concerns that will need to be addressed. With large numbers of autonomous airborne objects, air traffic control will be a huge problem. Restrictions on usage of drones, license requirements, and frameworks for the settlement of legal disputes will all take significant effort. In the meantime let us launch that selfie drone and pose for the perfect picture.
Text by Chetan Vincchi
Chetan Vinchhi is a Technologist, Entrepreneur, Mentor, and Consultant based in Bengaluru. He was inspired to write this column about drones when his son - perhaps out of empathy for the poor bird - asked why drones can't do the job of Rufus the Bird Scarer, at Wimbledon.