From the sky to your home, a new age for drones

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From service delivery to humanitarian aid, the private sector is re-imagining the use of drones globally.

The social stigma accompanying drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), goes without saying. The UN recently held a convention on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) at its Geneva office which threatens the future of armed drones by proposing to regulate or abolish their use in combat.

Its efficient and effective use in war, counter-terrorism operations, and surveillance has convincingly situated the brainchild of military technology as a controversial aeronautic phenomenon. But some companies are looking to change that.

Three billion new web surfers

In March, Facebook acquired Ascenta, a solar-powered drone manufacturer based in the UK, for $20 million. The purpose of this acquisition is to create new internet access for over one-third of the world’s population, or approximately 3 billion people, using drones.

“Today we are also bringing on key members of the team from Ascenta, a small UK-based company whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, which became the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. They will join our team working on connectivity aircraft,” noted Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s on the company’s website.

By using free-space optical communication, which allows data to be distributed through light particles via high-intensity lasers, Facebook’s drones will be able to offer connection speeds up to 1GB per second.

Internet connectivity density via drone (Photo: Facebook)

The recently acquired drone manufacturer Ascenta has a troublesome past though. In a press release published 23 April, 2013, the company described their products as “ideal for border surveillance, anti-poaching, communication intercept or private comms.” With Facebook reeling from public scorn concerning their privacy agreements, they will need to reassure drone-internet users of its safety.

Google is also following suit with their recent acquisition of Titan Aerospace, another solar-powered drone manufacturer based in the US, with hopes to supplement the company’s Project Loon, an initiative also aimed at recruiting more than 3 billion new web surfers by creating wider access to the internet.

“Internet connectivity significantly improves people’s lives. Yet two thirds of the world have no access at all. It’s why we’re so focused on new technologies—from Project Loon to Titan Aerospace—that have the potential to bring hundreds of millions more people online in the coming years,” a Google spokesperson told TNN in an emailed statement.

Titan Aerospace’s solar-powered prototype (Photo: Titan Aerospace)

A majority of the drones to be launched by Facebook and Google will coast at an altitude of approximately 19,000 km above earth. In this sense, they will barely be visible to the human eye from the ground. But not all commercial drones will be out of sight, out of mind.

Better, faster, stronger delivery service

Online shopping giant Amazon is also invested in drone technology. Last year, Amazon announced Prime Air, their latest R&D lab which uses drones to deliver products within 30 minutes of ordering them. Amazon hopes to offer the delivery option for online consumers by sometime in 2015.

“It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles,” Amazon noted in the FAQ section of their website.

Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drone (Photo: Amazon)

Humanitarian drones?

Tech giants are not the only ones capitalizing off UAVs. CEO and founder of tech startup Matternet, Andreas Raptopoulos, envisions a world where drones deliver medicines to isolated areas and assist in disaster relief operations.

“Imagine you are in a maternity ward in Mali, and have a newborn in need of urgent medication. What would you do today?” Raptopoulos said in a TED talk. “Well, you would place a request via mobile phone, and someone would get the request immediately. That’s the part that works. The medication may take days to arrive because of bad roads. That’s the part that’s broken. We believe we can deliver it within hours with an electric autonomous flying vehicle.”

The eight-propeller prototype created by Matternet can travel a distance of 10 km carrying 2 kg within ten minutes at a cost of only $0.24 per flight. The company would eventually like to build a vast infrastructure which could carry goods to marketplaces in order to create sustainable incomes for rural communities in developing countries.

Entering the ‘Drone Age’

Whether or not the public will eventually become accustomed to a fleet of drones constantly buzzing over their heads, the inevitable future of UAVs is just around the corner. From the biggest cities to the most isolated communities, the private sector is looking to create a lasting impact on how society operates through a technology once reserved for warfare.

Though there are still many concerns from legal advocates and internet activists, reflecting a growing demand for enhanced safety in terms of all-around privacy, a global shift is occurring in response to the aeronautic phenomenon. With the cheapest drones for household use hovering at around $99 each, we are entering a new era in consumable technology. As CEO and cofounder of 3DRobotics, Chris Anderson, once noted in a Wired Magazine article, “We’re entering the Drone Age.”