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In The Near Future Drones Will be Doing What People Can't and Won't

Asked to define a drone, most people think first of fun little flying machines, equipped with cameras that take amazingly crisp aerial videos on outdoor expeditions. I’ve personally spent far too much time capturing cinematic footage of my rural surroundings with the brilliant DJI Mavic Pro, and the resulting video footage – if you ask me, anyway – looks like it was captured by a Hollywood crew with a helicopter. Drones are already being used widely in the world of TV and film; the buzz of their little blades became a part of the soundscape of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The emerging generation of drones won’t just dominate the skies; they’ll also swim and walk. The BIKI is a recently created underwater drone that looks and swims just like a fish, allowing divers and marine biologists to interact with the underwater ecosystem without scaring off flighty fishes. And on land, engineers at Boston Dynamics have recently created Atlas, a walking drone-cum-robot that mimics our ability to stand and walk upright, making it easier to get around obstacles. It’s no surprise that the military is more than a little interested; install a couple of machine guns on each arm and you’ve got a robotic Rambo.

While Atlas isn’t likely to be ready for widespread use for some time, today’s consumer drones are already packed with technology that was just a few years ago limited to million-dollar missiles – such as accelerometers, gyros and GPS locators – theoretically allowing anybody to fly them safely.

As aerial drones become more affordable and ubiquitous, their ability to get into places that are too dangerous or difficult for humans is making them invaluable. For example, they’re now being widely tested by fire fighters and police forces around the world to rush into places that would otherwise be less than people-friendly. They’re routinely used for inspecting the likes of transmission towers and railway tunnels, saving workers from exposure to danger.

According to Kevin On, communications director at drone-maker DJI, drones “... provide a perspective previously not easily accessible to most people. Now that perspective is contributing significantly to saving lives, enhancing jobs and transforming how industries work.”

You may have read about Amazon’s trials of drones to deliver packages (potentially rendering the postman obsolete), or an international pizza chain’s plan for Frisbee-style deliveries, but on a far more serious note, there is already in development a drone prototype equipped with a defibrillator. The intention is that the life-saving device is only ever a smartphone tap away, flying to a location via GPS to render a heart-zapping jolt. This is only a few years away. In the longer-term, when we begin to combine drone technology with other emerging fields such as nanotechnology or 3D printing, the possibilities are mind-boggling. Imagine a drone that can fly to an accident scene and use a biological 3D printer to quickly build a new artery, and then perform remote surgery, controlled by a qualified surgeon hundreds of kilometres away.

In September 2017, the government of Dubai and German company Volocopter jointly conducted the first trial flights of the Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT), an 18-rotor helicopter drone that can already carry two passengers on journeys of up to 30 minutes’ duration, at a cruising speed of 50km/h.

Meanwhile, Australian company AMSL Aero is developing the Vertiia, a two-seater autonomous drone with vertical take-off and landing capability. Among its design targets is the capability to carry emergency rescue crews into hard-to-reach areas.

Of course, with great promise comes some serious safety issues. Consumer drones are already sharing airspace with passenger jets, and in 2016 alone, Heathrow airport recorded 70 near-misses between drones and jets. Drones can also be used to drop contraband into prisons, or even carry explosives into crowded spaces (thankfully this hasn’t happened ... yet).

QLD Police DG MKII - Comm Games - AAP Image (1) Queensland Police with Drone Gun(Credit AAP)

The potential for mischief has, ironically, inspired an industry in drone-disabling technology, unsurprisingly derived from military research. One such device, the DroneGun MKII from Sydney company DroneShield, is typical in that it will get a drone out of the sky by using radio jamming frequencies, without destroying the drone itself.

There’s a lot of work to be done regarding the legislation around drones and how they integrate into the private and commercial aviation space; Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority has been one of the world’s leaders on this path. Properly harnessed though, the potential of drones to positively impact on society means that they’ll likely become as commonplace as delivery vans or ambulances in the near future.

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