The Drone Invasion
What’s that droning noise you hear? Washing machine? Hot water heater? Or that flying robot in the sky. Yes, that droning. When we talk about the notion of science and technology that is Jarkable, the drone fits the bill. Although the notion of the drone has become more commonplace, society has yet to feel the full brunt of what this robot nation will become. Whether we like it or not, the drone army is coming. The question is, will they help or hurt us in the long run?
This article isn’t about the apocalypse of drones or some future drone war. While Hollywood has certainly done a decent job dreaming up the possibilities, it seems more prudent to discuss immediate impacts today. While there may be some future threat, it’s well beyond my comprehension to predict any particular outcome.
So what is a drone? Effectively, it’s a small robot with varying degrees of mobility and intelligence. It can be controlled by a user using 2.4GHz radio frequency transmission (the same frequency used in wireless computer communication). In the most extreme case, the drone can be a military autonomous aircraft like the Predator. The mission and goal of such devices is typically well understood. In the more commercial/novel case, it’s an item like this quadcopter. While the most common belief surrounding drones includes the ability to fly, there are also land oriented drones like these dogs.
While military drones have their own surveillance and strike agendas, the commercial drone is still finding its footing. Most all the commercial drones have served as a novelty item at this point. Many of them take incredible pictures, help map landscapes, or used to spy on your neighbor, sadly. That being said, let’s take our own peek at what else is being developed with this emerging technology.
Of Course, The Amazon Drone
Amazon is most likely the highest profile entity that you’ve heard about in regard to drone technology. It’s true they are developing a program that would take its manufactured drones all over the country. This potentially enables package delivery to your doorstep in minutes. However, Amazon has set its sights on maturing the technology for future deployment and it is to be emphasized that this is truly in the developmental phase.
Double Quadcopter Drones in Action
Well the future is now. Until recently, Amazon had only tested their drones under the roof of a massive hanger. This kept them free from FAA regulation by avoiding operation in open air space. In such an environment, they turned prototype into reality with very little time and testing. They have recently filed with the FAA to permit them to operate in their own air space for further experimentation. It should be interesting to watch the red tape battle unfold.
Assuming Amazon finds a way to implement the technology, this translates to varying impacts on your life. The most obvious would be around package delivery time, as this would shift the paradigm around how we would shop. Immediate gratification has been always part of the human experience and Amazon would simply be delivering upon this dream. Puns always intended.
Drone Delivery Environmental Concerns
This would also have an environmental impact on our society as well. Studies are currently being done comparing the pollution trade-offs between heavy trucking and drone transport. Each has its drawbacks. Heavy trucking impact is somewhat obvious in the case of fossil fuel burn. Many of the orders on Amazon are smaller packages, so this equates to a greater volume of shipping per heavy truck. Obviously, the pollution costs add up quickly depending on the transported volume of packages. Conversely, battery power in drone delivery helps eliminate the typical pollution seen in air or ground shipping. However, powering warehouses for storage, and the cost of recharging drones could amount to higher energy consumption. For now assume drones are doing mostly small package delivery. This should offset the traditional heavy trucking pollution when volume is lacking on smaller packages. It is also inevitable that the battery technology will advance over time, greatly reducing the environmental impact per drone.
Safety would be a real concern as well. Object detection and collision avoidance are two big concerns of the FAA. Although Amazon is claiming their algorithms will be robust, there is no possible way to truly prevent all accidents. So would a drone impact your child playing outside? What if it clips a tree branch and ends up through you autonomous car window? These are serious concerns of the FAA and our society and are completely justified. Safety is paramount. Program approval should be contingent upon demonstrating safety over many test flight hours and conditional testing. Even then, fail-safes need to exist in the event of catastrophic failure. Even with such robust algorithms, we all need to understand the potential consequences this technology introduces.
Medical Supplies Delivered by Drones
Commercial goods are not the only use for drone shipping. The medical field is investing its own time and money into this technology as well. While the benefits of this may not be immediately obvious, drone delivery actually benefits the medical field in more ways than one. The trick will be to convince regulators that it is both safe and reliability. The good news is, trials are currently underway in certain regions of the world and success there will likely pave the way elsewhere.
Africa is currently spearheading the movement in medical package drone delivery. Unfortunately, this is no real surprise given the continent currently suffers from a scarcity of quality medical supplies. Africa also suffers from testing facilities capable of delivering timely results for patients who need a diagnosis. Time is lives when it comes to issues such as these. Drones are proving to be useful in both cases.
Africa Needs Medical Supplies
Where a sample might take days to be transported via car, boat or airplane, drones can quickly funnel the needed sample directly to a processing center with no middle man interaction. This is critical for one off items as you no longer have to wait as part of a bulk shipment due to the economics of traditional shipping. Traditional medical supplies or antidotes suffer from this same logistics problem. More specifically, I am thinking in terms of a medical emergency where a certain serum is needed immediately and the next shipment from a process center is days away. Suddenly, you now have the ability to pack up one box for shipment via drone and get the medicine to the patient in need ASAP.
While the medical industry is clamoring for such experimentation in the States, it has been hard to come by for the aforementioned reasons in the commercial world. Considerations such as altitude, collision avoidance and mechanical failure are just a few of the concerns from the FAA allowing medical drops. Think for a moment if a drone suddenly fell out of the sky with a swab sample from a patient with a deadly disease. The reaction would be utter panic, not to mention the logistics of trying to contain such a spill in open public.
Given these risks, it is perfectly prudent and, frankly, the responsibility of the FAA to demand answers to these most common questions. However, the FAA need not stifle growth of drone delivery and must give consider to the innovation of drone delivery. Compromise seems to be prevailing as the FAA is evaluating more applications in drone delivery, while continuing to demand wholesale solutions that will be applicable across the broader space. This has generated an influx of ideas which should eventually lead to a broader solution.
Near Term Impacts of Drone Delivery
Make no mistake, this is a difficult endeavor and those proposing solutions will truly have to prove it in the field. Candidly, I worry that they approve a solution before fully vetting the technology. You will always have mechanical failures, code that doesn’t execute as intended, or scenarios you never imagined in your wildest dreams impacting your drone. Designing for every event is near impossible so there will always be some level of risk that we as society will be accepting.
That being said, I’m excited for the future of the drone revolution. Consumers will benefit greatly in the near term from reduced delivery times on smaller packages. Getting that new set of Lebron sneakers or potential life-saving serum will be that much faster. This only seems to be the tip of the iceberg as well. As battery life becomes more reliable, I foresee the payloads increasing per drone.
I’m also envisioning a future where most of this would be automated as well. The beauty of a drone, versus the human, would be in the ability to program strategic paths for most destinations. A company such as Google, who’s terrain database is unrivaled, could sell 3D mapping to drone companies. Those companies could then program the bulk of their drone routes around most every obstacle. Again, things like birds will always exist, but you could reduce collision risk significantly. To emphasize, eliminating full risk will never be possible!! But it is conceivable that drone delivery will likely be safe enough for day to day operation.
So if I were you, I’d be stocking up on commercial drones and retrofitting them to carry small packages. You could quickly send supplies to your neighbor or family members. Or if you’re truly an entrepreneur, you could start an Uber of drones to deliver packages and goods for others. Yes. I’m sure that day will come. Heck you could even use virtual reality to help you map out your paths. Either way, you may want to invest in some earplugs – the drone will be deafening.
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