We love things that fly. Flying and flying things have always been a source of fascination for humans, and the latest fascination-with-flying trend could have an impact similar to the invention of the airplane. I'm talking about drones, of course.
Where did drone technology come from and how did it originate? I'm glad you asked. In this article we'll answer those questions and also discuss some of the most prominent drone-related technologies available in 2020. Also, as much as you may think we've already seen the peak of interest drone technology, there are definitely greater things in store.
In the beginning
All the way back in 1907, the world got its first peek at what we now know as drones. The familiar four-blade design was a centerpiece feature of the world's first quadcopter, created by inventor brothers Jacques and Louis Breguet, working with controversial Nobel Prize winner Professor Charles Richet.
Though undoubtedly exciting, the quadcopter, or gyroplane, had some big limitations. For one, it was completely unsteerable, requiring four men to steady it. And in its first flight it rose to a majestic height of two feet above the ground. Nevertheless, the Breguet gyroplane did innovate the quadcopter form factor we have today. Also, every journey has to start somewhere.
Jumping all the way forward in time to 2010, the French company Parrot released its Parrot AR Drone, the first ready-to-fly drone that could be controlled entirely via Wi-Fi, using a smartphone. The drone was almost immediately successful, both critically and commercially, receiving a 2010 CES Innovations award for Electronic Gaming Hardware, and selling upwards of half-a-million units.
Parrot's AR Drone 2.0 further improved on the formula with an easier piloting system, making the drone simpler for newcomers to use. Companies quickly figured out that consumers loved to play with flying remote-controlled drones. They had known for quite a while, of course, that consumers love to fly remote-controlled planes — but to do so from your phone? Well, that seemed like a gold mine.
Fast forward to December 2013, when Amazon released a concept video showcasing founder Jeff Bezos' dream for a drone-based delivery system. While the retail giant wasn't the first company to consider drone deliveries, it was the announcement by Amazon that firmly rooted drone technology in the public consciousness.
In an interview on 60 Minutes, Bezos described the possibility of using the technology to make half-hour deliveries. I know this looks like science fiction. It's not, he said. Bezos described the technology as being around five years away, although Amazon later clarified that aerial deliveries will require some federal rule changes. Government rules still haven't changed, so we'll all have to wait and see about Amazon's bold vision.
More than just delivery
The 1907 experiments and the early years of drone technology development were largely focused on flying as a military application, both for active conflict and espionage. Before Amazon came along, most people would probably have identified the concept of drones most strongly with remotely-piloted planes used for bombing strikes in far-flung, geographically isolated regions.
The idea of consumer applications for drone technology, however, is quickly making up lost ground. Most of us have no trouble believing that unmanned drones are still used for bombing attacks, but the thought of individual owners flying drones, say, with cameras attached — to name just one popular use — is rapidly taking off. (Pun intended.)
One of the more recent developments to fire up interest in drones has come through the real estate industry. Companies like FairFleet, a German drone services provider, are offering drones to assist in selling both commercial and residential real estate. Drones can capture marketing images from unique angles, provide aerial views of both large lots and far-flung land parcels, and even assist with inspections. (Imagine how much time a drone could save, for example, with exterior inspection of large buildings.)
Drones save lives
We can jump from selling property to helping in emergency response situations, working in tandem with first responders. This is area where innovations in camera technology have had a significant impact on the growing use of drones. UAVs outfitted with thermal imaging cameras have provided emergency response teams with an ideal solution for identifying victims who are difficult to spot with the naked eye.
Think of all the situations in which search-and-rescue crew could more easily locate people lost in the wilderness, or trapped in buildings damaged by earthquakes or hurricanes. In 2017, Land Rover partnered with the Austrian Red Cross to design a special operations vehicle with a roof-mounted, thermal imaging drone.
The Land Rover drone includes an integrated landing system, which allows the drone to securely land atop a rescue vehicle while in motion. Using the vehicle, a custom Land Rover Discovery, and drone in tandem — the combination has been dubbed Project Hero — could save lives by speeding up response times. Who wouldn't be excited about that?
Just last year, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI launched an emergency response program that gives first responders access to some of the company's drones and peripherals, as well as technical support and assistance. So far, DJI's U.S. headquarters, in California, has partnered with fire departments in Los Angeles and Menlo Park, plus the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.
DJI is also assisting with other humanitarian efforts like protecting wildlife and climate. Poaching and climate change have had a dramatic impact on the health of wildlife worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that thousands of species vanish each year. To help combat this trend, conservationists are adopting innovative methods to protect and study our global ecosystems.
In combination with satellite-derived geospatial imagery, drones are now used to monitor and track animals. A team in the School of Natural Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University is building an autonomous drone system that can follow endangered species and transmit information about their well-being back to researchers.
What lies ahead
While many humans will always seek to adapt new technology to means of killing other humans — war remains one of our oldest pastimes — there will also always be people who look at new technology and see an opportunity for positive change.
When I write these articles, I sometimes get to freestyle predict things I believe will come about in the future. First, while there remain enormous legal hurdles to private citizens filling up the skies with aerial vehicles, I think drones that transport people, even one at a time, will definitely be with us eventually. Forget Uber-ing around in a driverless automobile — just wait until you can order a drone from an app on your phone.
Also, I am convinced that microscopic drones will be a thing. Doctors will pilot them through your heart, just like in the once-outlandish 20th Century Fox film Fantastic Voyage. (No doubt spy agencies will have their own nefarious uses for super-small drone tech.) That would be one of the most amazing developments in the history of science — and we will all be witness to it. No matter what happens, I can't wait!