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Drones at year zero: UAV experts look to the future
“I would compare robotics in general to the early 1980s of computing” says Simon Nielsen, CEO of Ctrl.Me Robotics, a firm that deals in drones for the film industry. Although UAVs already have a certain futuristic chic to them, this statement really puts things into perspective. As a child of the 1980s I remember my first computer being a ZX Spectrum, which seemed pretty cutting edge at the time – now the smartphone in my pocket has a quad core processor that is 645 times faster. What this means for the drone industry is pretty hard to comprehend, but it also means the small stuff needs to be taken care of. Take battery life for example, and you’ll see major room for improvement: “it’ll be a game changer when an hour isn’t a lot and 24 hours is.” Baby steps.
Size is another area where things can improve. With better, smaller batteries following the computing comparison Nielsen outlined above, it shouldn’t be too big a stretch to imagine drones themselves getting smaller. How much smaller? Professor Nick Avis of the University of Chester speculates we could eventually reach a nano scale for medical usages inside the body. If we already have a video pill that can take video of the human digestive tract, then maybe the fantastical fiction of ‘The Fantasic Voyage‘ could become a reality, with a remote pilot-able device exploring the body without the need for invasive surgery.
Or perhaps a pilot won’t be necessary. With plenty of words on the web dedicated to Google’s driverless car project, it shouldn’t be too great a stretch to push artificial intelligence into drones. With considerably less airborne traffic to deal with, flying AI should be relatively trivial. “I’m really interested in autonomous systems. I think in 20 years time, we will be amazed we had people flying aircrafts, or driving cars, and we’ll certainly be amazed that people used to be on motorcycles,” Avis explains. “I think that if you can get this fabric of communication together, we’ve got enough information, enough density of stuff going on, and enough computational power which really now isn’t an issue, we could make all kinds of predictive models using machine intelligence to overcome the obstacles.” He accepts the point is controversial but believes that with the limitations of human functions, this is definitely the way forward.
As is often the case when the fast moving world of technology clashes with the slow moving world of law (it only became legal this year in the UK to rip CDs for mp3s, a few years after mp3s gave way to streaming), some interesting areas are raised. Peter Lee, a lawyer in Taylor Vinters’ commercial and technology team, and an expert in drone and UAV law sees many potential hurdles as drone adoption rates increase. What happens if a drone falls out of the sky and kills you, for example? He’s glad you asked:
But what happens when drones are completely automated? Who is legally responsible then? In somewhat ironic twist, Lee muses that the legally grey area of modern technology may seek precedent in the civilizations of the past: “Perhaps what we should be doing is looking what the Romans did 2000 years ago – they had a fantastic area of law which dealt with slavery. The Roman law of slavery didn’t give slaves a legal personality as such – they were just a thing. But they were different from a vase or a table say, because they could make decisions, and in polite Roman society an urbane slave was an asset that could conduct trade on your behalf. So they created a system whereby liability could be apportioned to the owners. It’s not a great mental leap to go forward a couple of millennia and see how that relationship could play out with autonomous systems,” explains Lee, adding that companies have legal personalities too. It’s a grey area that needs to be addressed, he insists.
Over the next five years, this is just the tip of the iceberg we can expect in terms of legal issues – Lee expects we’ll be seeing more airspace regulation and questions encompassing everything from the 2.4GHz spectrum to the ownership of data analytics and privacy laws.
But these industry growing pains shouldn’t get in the way of what it is a truly exciting time for drones and UAVs. As Chris Anderson told Business Insider: “This is the first minute of the day for this industry. Putting powerful technology in the hands of powerful people is sort of the story of Silicon Valley. How do we make it easier? How do we take piloting out of the technology? How do we reinvent photography for an aerial age? That’s what’s most exciting. Then what people do with it, watching people build on our platform is what excites me the most.”
While other technologies have plateaued and innovation is harder to come by, this kind of enthusiasm that only comes with the blank slate of new technology is infectious. It’s hard not to be excited about what comes next for drones, and bearing in mine few of us would have predicted the rise of computing 30 years ago, who knows exactly where UAVs will end up? But it’ll be fascinating to find out…
Read part one of this series here: Drones 4 Good: Tackling the PR problem.