Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, fly over today’s skies for an incredible number of different purposes. No longer just the remote-controlled planes of hobbyists and tinkerers, cutting-edge drones have been adopted by government agencies, logistics companies, and even the entertainment industry. These vehicles can navigate the skies, survey the landscape below, and capture footage for analysis or use in media - all with the help of real-time communications. Read on to learn more.
What’s Happening Now
Drone cameras can already record 360-degree video in resolutions up to 5K, enabling users to take crystal-clear HD images from hundreds or even thousands of feet in the air. Combined with tools like WebRTC, drones offer the possibility to stream high-bandwidth video in real time with low latency. This opens up an entire world of new public safety, shipping, and surveillance applications.
Research firm Gartner anticipates strong growth in the market for drones and UAVs, estimating that it will reach an $11.2 billion market size by 2020. Both the personal and commercial drone markets are driving growth for the industry, with lower-cost, consumer-focused drones also being adopted by commercial organizations.
For consumers, drones are an increasingly popular companion to smartphones, allowing users to take pictures remotely and control equipment for recreation. Commercial drones are often equipped with the ability to carry larger payloads or have longer flight times. These offer professional-grade mapping, inspection, and surveillance capabilities for a wide variety of industries, such as agriculture or logistics.
What It’s Used For
Drones make it possible for humans to enter areas that are typically off-limits or prohibitively expensive to traverse. Across a wide range of industries, drones are being used to perform a variety of tasks, including deliver packages, perform safety inspections, record footage, and carry out military operations.
In 2016, Amazon introduced Prime Air, a preview into an extension of their Amazon Prime delivery service powered entirely by drones. For commercial and emergency services, drones are being used to assess the damage caused by natural disasters, carry out utility inspections, and assist in recovery efforts.
Amateur and professional filmmakers have adopted drones to capture incredible HD footage from above. Combined with WebRTC, 4G and equipment like the Raspberry Pi, drones also offer the ability to stream drone footage across the internet at full HD.
And, in their most infamous application, military drones offer defensive and offensive capabilities, enabling machines to enter combat zones without the need for human pilots.
As they carve out their own sliver of airspace, drones present some significant challenges to public safety, security, and privacy. Drones are often piloted without being able to survey the entire airspace, making it difficult for existing aircraft to navigate with worries about colliding with the unmanned equipment.
Drones also present dangerous opportunities as weapons of war and destruction. In August, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro survived an attempted assassination from an incoming drone bomb. Many military organizations continue to adopt more sophisticated drones in addition to the fleets they currently use on the battlefield.
As the possibility for drones to deliver deadly payloads increases, the public sentiment for these capabilities is turning negative. At Google, protests from thousands of engineers caused the search giant to end a Pentagon contract for the development of AI-backed drone weapons. The increased use of drones has also led to more worries about privacy, with aerial cameras offering the ability to capture footage of unsuspecting individuals or locations surreptitiously.
Where It’s Headed
Next-generation drones are expected to be powered by artificial intelligence capabilities. Machine learning will enable drones to better understand their landscapes and what’s being surveyed as well as to make their own decisions. AI-enabled drones can even be operated without controllers and simply follow a target on their own, removing the need for skilled human operators to pilot drone equipment.
Like many of the concerns surrounding military drones, many worry that future AI applications will also enable drones to make decisions of life and death, introducing an entirely new level of debate surrounding the morality of machines and their developers.
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