Drones are the Next Internet

For those who had lost faith in the ability of the empire to sow the seeds of its own destruction, consider what the effect of their latest weapon of choice will be.

Drones--whether aerial, terrestrial or aquatic--are cheap, intelligent mobile platforms. And because the intelligence is on the same technology curve as computing equipment, they will be ubiquitous in a matter of years. Where today they are being used as surveillance platforms to track enemies of the state, within a year or two they will be covering protests and traffic stops (like this or this), streaming live video to the Internet to record the activity of state agents for the protection of their victims. And where today, they are being used as platforms to deliver deadly force by state agents, in the future they will take the place of suicide bombers by replacing the targeting and evasion capabilities of a human with hardware costs similar to a laptop computer.

Though the initial use of drones by the state brings martial uses to mind, the market will no doubt find thousands of peaceful applications. Since seeing this demonstration a few years ago, I have imagined using a drone to locate sheep on my hilly 40 acre farm or to check the state of fences regularly. Where Skycams or helicopters cover professional sports events today, drones will cover high school cross-country meets in a few years. Lineman in cherry pickers will be replaced with pole climbing maintenance robots.

It has been about fifteen years since the Internet was commercialized, and agents of central planning are still trying to understand and respond to the resulting power shift from the collective to the individual. They will no doubt play catch-up to the genie they are unleashing by pouring resources into cheap, expendable platforms. They should stick to their nuclear bombs and battleships if they want to maintain a monopoly of weaponry.

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Drones have indeed become

Drones have indeed become part of our high tech society. From automated farming machinery to the various military and industrial applications that dominate discussion, these simple machines made from relatively inexpensive components are going to play a very large part in our near future. The elements necessary for decentralization and expansion of the drone market are here already, due to a largely unregulated electronics industry that has flourished over the last half century.

Time to think up some ways to monetize this field and merge my RC and Computer expertise into a new revenue stream. :D

Time to think up some ways to

Time to think up some ways to monetize this field and merge my RC and Computer expertise into a new revenue stream.

I haven't visited it since it's early launch days, but Chris Anderson's DIY Drones site would be a good place to start with the production side of your business.

Given the expense in energy of keeping a payload in the air for extended times, camera work for specific jobs (e.g. regularly monitoring forest growth) or events (e.g. distance races) seems like the easiest markets. But having spent an hour or so on DIY Drones this morning, more ideas come to mind...

The big problem is keeping

The big problem is keeping the fuel/battery from running out quickly. Solving that seems to be the main bottleneck. The fuel/energy problem has been one of the main barriers to the realization of science fiction/futurism dreams.

Either battery power can be improved, or power consumption can be reduced, or something like solar panels can continually draw power from the environment. One direct way to draw power would be autonomous gliders that seek out updrafts. Another alternative is powering them from the ground through directed lasers, for example.

Work the margins

The restrictions (vehicle cost/operating cost/mission duration/payload weight) will always limit the problems that can be solved effectively. But once there is a market to solve a high-value problem, it will attract resources and restrictions will be overcome. And then a new class of problems can be solved, which will attract more resources to push the limits back even further.

I saw this in the field of Geographic Information Systems. When I started in the field, the cost (mostly of collecting information) made it barely effective only for high-value problems like oil exploration. Twenty years later, the accumulated wealth of geo-referenced data that already exists means that I can spend ten minutes adding my business location to Google Maps and leverage off their data library, route planning, and location searches to advertise to potential customers in my area.

Preparing this post, I suddenly thought of drone technology as "adding mobility to the Internet". In the same way that the Internet made acquisition and delivery of information cheap enough for individual use, drone technology will make acquisition and delivery of physical components cheap enough to make the idea of Central Control of our lives even more obviously ridiculous than it is today.

But once there is a market to

But once there is a market to solve a high-value problem, it will attract resources and restrictions will be overcome.

This is a very important, very high value problem and has been for a long time. Our failure to advance further than we have has not been due to a lack of economic incentives.

Science fiction predicted a near future of rockets, hovercraft, flying cities, and the like. But long after the rockets were predicted to become commonplace, cars still roll along the ground, few people are flying to the moon. Why not?

Fuel. It takes a tremendous amount of fuel to get things up and keep things up.

Part of the problem is economic. It takes a lot of money to buy the fuel that will get a person to the moon safely and back.

Another part, or aspect, of the problem is physical. The fuel is not only expensive, it is heavy. If you want to get a person out of Earth's pull, you need fuel to do that. But that fuel is also going with him (part ways), so you need fuel to get that fuel up. And so on. You ultimately need a tremendous amount of fuel to do it. You're not going to be able to strap on something the size and weight of a backpack and go to the moon with it, no matter how much money you throw at it.

It's also not enough to keep a person up in the air. We have jetpacks. We have had jetpacks for a long time. Aside from the sheer physical danger of a jetpack, there is the problem of fuel. The jetpack simply won't keep you up for very long, because the fuel runs out.

There are a lot of toys these days that fly. Toy helicopters and the like. If you've ever seen the indoors ones, they're very light, sometimes made of styrofoam (for the main body) because it's so light. They don't typically last very long in the air, just a handful of minutes. If you wanted them to stay aloft longer, you would have to increase the battery size. But that would increase the weight. Which would require an even bigger battery to keep all that weight flying for very long, which would make it even heavier, which... And so on. This has always been a problem. It has not stopped being a problem.

Recently toy quadcopters have become popular, for example the AR Drone Parrot. They are much more stable than toy helicopters. So, how long do you suppose a toy quadcopter will last in the air? About half an hour. Which is a lot better than the typical toy helicopter, it's very nice - for a toy. Not enough for something serious. And the recharge takes much longer than the flight time.

Don't think that this hasn't been a high-value problem until now. It's been a tremendously high-value problem. For one thing, think of all the laptop owners who would love to have a laptop that was truly portable, that didn't need a wall outlet for long term use.

Just imagine if laptops could run for weeks on a battery the size and weight of a dime. Produce such a battery, and we can install a few in a quadcopter and have it patrol the neighborhood for days on end. The problem of getting a lot of power from low-weight energy sources is not a new problem which is only just now becoming interesting to the market to solve.

I'm not saying it won't be solved. I'm saying it's a problem and has been for a long time.

The difference is intelligence

Sure, the high-value problem of mobility--particularly aerial mobility--has a high cost in energy. Otherwise, the problem would have been solved long ago.

What has changed is intelligence. The power/weight ratio of computational devices has dropped. We have created a lot of intellectual capital to design ways to move data around, via tiny variable power radios to base stations and via dozens of other methods from base stations to consumers. That makes us realize that we don't have to move so much weight around.

As you emphasize, the problem of mobility doesn't scale linearly. It scales more or less as the square of the payload weight. If you want to move a pound of payload, you have to carry enough fuel to move the payload, but you also have to carry enough extra fuel to move the fuel that moved the payload. The breakthrough for drone technology is that the incremental weight that you have to attach to the payload to give it enough intelligence to control motion and communicate progress has become very small.

A lot of applications don't require you to move very much material. Most of today's drone applications involve moving cameras around. A few involve rapidly deploying communication radios over areas. Agents of the State like to move explosives around (for they believe they can destroy lives and property without repercussions).

What problems could you solve if, for a given price, you could just deliver two pounds of matter to a certain location?

Nah! Depending on the

Nah! Depending on the application, one could bring along all the fuel they would ever need. There are some slightly less obvious technologies that could be exploited to achieve flight times longer than anything the US military has openly fielded.

Maybe all these back issues of Air & Space magazine will finally pay off.

Depending on the application

Depending on the application being the operative phrase. In other words, don't bet on these solutions applying to your particular problem.

Well yeah, that much should

Well yeah, that much should be obvious to anyone. Despite what the CIA seems to think, drones are not capable of doing everything under the sun.

The thing is, if you can get a hybrid craft to stay up for 2 hours at a time, you only need twelve and a few spares to be a part of a swarm intelligence with an automatic launch so that you always have a bird in the air. Same with a laptop, if you have an application that you must run and require it live for twenty four hours with no outside power aside from battery and no chance to plug in... you might want to bring two laptops loaded with the app and a bunch of charged batteries.

Thats what is so cool about drones, the energy limitations of a single unit can be side stepped by adding more inexpensive drones.

Add auto launch, auto land,

Add auto launch, auto land, auto recharge, ie no human intervention required, and it becomes very useful. Distance is still an issue.

Yeah, distance from the

Yeah, distance from the "airfield" would be a limiting factor for sure. How about a airborne dirigible airfield? It could be completely automated and provide additional logistics capability.

Very cool! And that's a great

Very cool! And that's a great idea for recording activism and protecting oneself from the bad guys. "You're being recorded from the sky and it's uploaded in real time." LOL.

Hiding in plain sight

that's a great idea for recording activism and protecting oneself from the bad guys. "You're being recorded from the sky and it's uploaded in real time." LOL.

Some people (libertarians?) used to argue that we best protect autonomy by promoting anonymity, privacy. No longer.

Now we're promoting autonomy by eliminating anonymity. Now, not only is my every deed be known to God, it'll be known to the entire world. That's a kind of intimacy that was depicted in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit -- and it was an image of hell.

I would say that as an

I would say that as an activist tool, it would eliminate the faceless anonymity of the states enforcers. If that requires the potential victim to eradicate their anonymity in favor of achieving some measure of justice, so be it.

A complete lack of anonymity is indeed a vision of hell, check out the documentary We Live in Public...

Promoting Autonomy

Drone technology is a tool, just like handguns, computers, and nuclear bombs are tools.

Some tools are incredibly expensive, such as a nuclear bomb. It takes engineer-years to develop and deploy them, and the ultimate use is low enough to consumers that it is only leaders of a nation state (through coercive taxes and fraudulent fiat money) that are able to divert enough wealth to purchase them at this cost.

Other tools, such as handguns and computers are relatively cheap. Either one could be bought today for about a week's wages of unskilled labor. A computer is incredibly useful to most consumers as a communication device. A handgun (the best description I've heard of it is, "a convenient way to employ deadly force") is less useful. I use one occasionally to kill my livestock. Yet, I have one with me more often than I have shoes with me. And, in the interest of a society of autonomous individuals, I would hope that everyone else would do likewise.

I cannot control other individuals. One may decide to employ deadly force against me. I have had to grow comfortable with that idea. It is not nice to think that any stranger has the ability to kill you. But I comfort myself with the idea that it has never been different for any other person that has lived. Our lives are not guaranteed. We live at the mercy of the elements and of other creatures, particularly creatures of our own species. If you are not comfortable with this idea, you will hope that someone can guarantee your safety, and you will be more likely to believe such a promise--even if it leads to a tyrannical hell.

Drone technology is a cheap tool. It will be in the hands of everyone soon. Sure, it means that someone could record my actions or set off an explosive near me at any time. But today that technology is only in the hands of the most evil people on the planet--people who have the will and the ability to deal with their fellows through force and fraud. They will only be constrained when they believe that this tool could be used against them. They will be constrained when they believe that they will bear the consequences of their actions.

I have faith that when a tool is cheap and ubiquitous, it will be used chiefly for productive means. My neighbor won't send a drone on my property without my permission unless he is willing to live with the consequences that someone may send one on his property without his permission.

killing has become to cheap.

In the bad old days the generals had to lead the troops from the van. Now they lead from the Pentagon. No more "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." Our troops can now kill people in Pakistan from an air conditioned room in California. The next generation fighter will also be pilotless. The Air Force might recruit 18 year old kids to do the fighting from their bedrooms at home.

What happens when Mexico uses drones to take out drug houses in Texas?

I've heard about people

I've heard about people flying war drones remotely from American suburbia. I don't remember if it was real or near-future speculation. The main potential problem I see is lag at that distance, due to physical constraints.

A cousin of mine mentioned that computerized traders try to put their computers as physically close to the actual trading exchange as possible, because of the finite speed of signals. So the computers are not out in the Midwest somewhere, but a stone's throw from Wall Street.

For most applications, speed of light good enough

I suspect the military uses their own links and satellites - hope they do.

Your friend is probably correct. Well over half the stock trades are done by technical trading computers. All my stock guy seems to care about is trends, not good companies. So far, he is doing OK or at least better than I did picking companies. The point should be that this isn't investing but crap shooting.