Coming to a Sky Near You: Drones

About a year ago, a delicious idea proliferated through the Internet. A small start-up company in San Francisco had an idea to deliver tacos anytime, anywhere in San Francisco using unmanned drones. The source of the tacos was irrelevant, and so was the price. All that anyone could imagine was a flying robotic Tacocopter delivering fresh, airborne Mexican food to your door.

Unfortunately for couch-potatoes in the area, the dream remains far from reality. The aviation and food safety logistics make it implausible enough. The MIT engineer behind the concept has admitted the technology, which will ideally have use beyond simple fast-food delivery, is still far from scalable deployment.

But little else about drone technology is quite so distant.

It’s true that drones have revolutionized warfare, especially for the U.S. military. The Pentagon now has 7,500 drones in its fleet, up from just 50 a decade ago. Drones have also been responsible for killing 50 high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, according to a study by the New America Foundation. Considering that drones have passed the test of war, writer Lev Grossman recently investigated their future, and found out just how prolific the technology will become.

Having transformed war, drones are getting ready to transform peace. A year ago Obama ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expedite the process of integrating “unmanned aerial vehicles,” as drones are primly referred to within the trade, into civilian airspace. Police departments will use them to study crime scenes. Farmers will use them to watch their fields. Builders will use them to survey construction sites. Hollywood will use them to make movies. Hobbyists will use them just because they feel like it. Drones are an enormously powerful, disruptive technology that rewrites rules wherever it goes. Now the drones are coming home to roost.

It’s frightening to imagine a horizon shadowed by hovering helicopters, clogging up the sky. It’d be foolish to pretend that drones can’t also come with nefarious motives. Yet the utility might be exciting as well. Imagine how the use of suspended cameras in the sky could transform security and law enforcement, or how unmanned aircraft, all working on an advanced traffic-avoidance system, could alleviate transport. Delivery companies might be the first to benefit, using unmanned agile aircraft to become faster and more cost-effective.

One name that quickly comes to mind is Amazon. Last year the e-commerce powerhouse signaled it may be planning a retail revolution by offering the holy grail in online buying: same-day delivery. By setting up warehouses in large cities, which it has so far avoided in order to limit sales taxes it would have to pay, the company could offer customers in those same cities three-hour (rather than two-day or longer) shipping. Substitute an Amazon employee with an automated delivery vehicle that could avoid traffic and cut through the sky, and, well, your food processor arrives even quicker.

Drones’ long-term future, however, is probably something more grand than package delivery. Several lines of transportation innovation, including driverless cars, hyper speed planes, and space tourism, continue on their own exciting trajectories. Advances in drone technology seem to offer clues about how all of these areas of research may eventually meld together, making our use of the skies and atmosphere ever-more efficient. And when it is, just imagine how quickly you’d be able to procure fresh tacos.

Changing Planet