Special delivery

The white cubes sit side-by-side in the desert, identical in every way. To an untrained observer, they might be storage pods or upscale outhouses.

What distinguishes them from those mundane enclosures, however, are the satellite radio antennae mounted on their flat roofs.

Inside each unit is space for two people, two chairs, and a few million dollars worth of sophisticated control and monitoring equipment.

The people who work inside are the military personnel who remotely operate sophisticated aircraft that are typically located thousands of miles away.

Becoming mainstream

Those aircraft are used for surveillance and, sometimes, to deliver deadly force with pinpoint accuracy on unsuspecting adversaries. They are referred to formally as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), but are more often simply called drones.

Drones have been around for a few decades, but like many technologies developed for military purposes, drone technology is becoming an indispensable tool in multiple civilian and commercial applications.

Commercial drones initially seemed like glorified toys, and have been sold that way—like the radio-controlled, battery-operated helicopters that preceded them.

Drones do possess that cool toy factor, but include a host of additional technologies that enable a certain self-reliance factor. For example, if one motor malfunctions, the other motors can compensate automatically to maintain the specified speed and altitude.

Consequently, drones are being used for all manner of applications in the real world. Drones are becoming mainstream.

Growing list of applications

In movie production, drones are fast replacing much more expensive piloted helicopters for aerial, tracking, and other action shots.

This finally spurred the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which has jurisdiction over all aerial vehicles, including drones, to release official guidelines governing the use of drones in film and video production.

In sporting events, such as downhill skiing, drones are being used to follow the athletes from overhead and behind to place viewers directly in the action.

In real estate sales, drones are being used to provide fly-over views of properties to prospective buyers.

Drones are being deployed for safer and more thorough road and bridge inspections, wildlife tracking, atmospheric and climate research, disaster relief, and environmental compliance.

The list goes on.

Anatomy of a drone

Military drones typically are very expensive. The MQ-9 Reaper, for example, costs $12.5 million. Commercial drones are less expensive, obviously, ranging down to less than a hundred dollars.

But all drones, regardless of cost, are sophisticated devices employing a number of technologies.

Frame. A drone begins with a lightweight, aerodynamic, durable frame, typically engineered from aluminum, carbon fiber, or hardened plastic.

Propellers. Drones are hovering devices, which require precision engineered propellers, typically constructed of carbon fiber or hardened plastic.

Motors. Drones require lightweight, typically brushless, motors that drive the propellers and provide the optimal RPM to voltage ratio—meaning, they are efficient.

Controllers. Drones require circuitry that provides individual motor adjustments for speed, balance and maneuvering, as well as radio communications and GPS positioning.

Batteries. As with other modern tech, batteries are the weak link for commercial drones. Typically, drones use lithium batteries that must be lightweight while delivering enough power to drive the motors. Unfortunately, the best batteries provide only 10-15 minutes of operation for a typical hobbyist drone.

Disruption unfolding

Nonetheless, it’s clear that drone technology is blossoming and has the potential to disrupt entire industries. And that’s major.

With the recent news that Amazon completed its first actual delivery via drone in Hamstead, England, we begin to imagine how drones might disrupt multiple industries: retailers, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, even shipping companies like Fedex and UPS.

But surely we can’t have thousands of drones flying willy nilly overhead, can we? Current FAA guidelines require that all drone flights be controlled by a human pilot on the ground with line of sight to the aircraft in the sky. That would seem to limit wide-scale drone deployment, at least for now.

In fact, the FAA has published a five-year plan for commercial drone deployment that gives us more than a clue. Tests will be done, data collected, and phase-in will be measured and thoughtful.

It’s interesting, nonetheless, to note some of the concepts that are emerging with respect to drone technology.

Mercedes Benz, for example, has released its vision for electric delivery vehicles that could operate in congested areas and deploy on-board drones to deliver packages to customer porches. The all-electric “Vision Van” would work in concert with automated systems for loading, transporting and delivering packages.

Even more out there, perhaps, is Amazon’s recently-announced concept of a flying warehouse that would deliver packages by drone to customers that live in the defined service locale. Imagine huge blimps filled with volatile gas floating above us, wherever we go. What could possibly go wrong?

Amazon/U.S. Patent Office

Ultimately, while these technological visions are fascinating, I wonder whether they reflect a kind of technocentric bubble emerging in our global society. We seem intent on solving logistical problems of commerce and increasing wealth for our emerging oligarchy, not necessarily making the world a better place to live.

I hope I’m wrong. Happy New Year.

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