When we think of drones right now, a handful of applications spring to mind: spying and surveillance; raining down hellfire on unsuspecting enemies; and capturing panaromic pictures or videos.
But a sci-fi-like future populated by drones looms – with drones taking on a variety of tasks from delivering mail or pizza to hunting down law-breakers. Drones are getting bigger and smaller, becoming stronger and faster, and better equipped to perform specialised and difficult tasks.
Developments in drone technology also subvert the traditional definition of a drone: an unmanned machine guided remotely, without the autonomy that makes robots so appealing.
In the future the difference between drone and robot may virtual non-existent.
Along with the work to make drone operation more autonomous, using artificial intelligence to automate functions, drone designers are brainstorming all manner of situational designs. While most are the flying type, using rotors or wings (sometimes both) and some sort of attachment allowing further functions, others are being built to tackle water- and land-based environments. Here we preview some of the best designs to make it off the drawing boards.
What could be more sci-fi than a flying taxi? This egg-shaped, four-legged craft could be a solution to car-clogged roads. It can carry 100 kg and fly at up to 160 km/h. Guidance is set-and-forget: all passengers need to do is select a location.
The Aerius is the smallest commercially available flying drone, measuring just 3 cm wide. Flying is about the only thing it can do, capable of dodging and weaving thanks to its four rotors. But some scientists, taking notice of its size and manoeuvrability, transformed one into an artificial bee – a harbinger of potential future applications for miniature drones.
Self-stabilising technology and manoeuvrability are the key assets of the SeaDrone, allowing the submersible to do the work of a diver at a fraction of the speed, without any danger of the bends. Made for underwater exploration and inspection, the drone can self-monitor and record vision in all directions.
With a wingspan wider than some commercial airplanes, Aquila can keep flying for months at a time, and generate power through solar panels. Facebook plans on using the Aquila to provide internet connectivity to areas lacking access using extremely high-frequency millimetre wave radio, which can deliver speeds of 80 gigabytes per second.
Packed to the propeller for humanitarian relief, the Pouncer is designed to deliver aid to disaster zones. The three-metre-wide hull can be packed with food, supplies and medicine, and everything on-board has a purpose. After locating its target by GPS, the body can be burned or used for shelter. Even the wings, made from biodegradable starch-based thermoplastic, will be edible.
Like the name suggests, Waste Shark clears the water’s surface of any floating trash. The whale shark-inspired design roams with its mouth wide open. It can devour up to 500 kg of waste before needing to return to port.
With a slew of foldable parts and top-of-the line recording devices, the Mavic Pro represents the best of drone photography. Able to automatically avoid obstacles, it has a flight mode for every camera situation, from tripod to selfie, able to record in 4K video (4096 x 2160 pixels) or take 12-megapixel photos,
The Twing (short for ‘tethered wing’) is a wind-powered electricity-generating system that works a bit like a kite. The drone can take off and land autonomously but remains tethered to a generator on the ground throughout its flight. Designed to harness the power of stronger winds found at higher altitudes, it shuts down its motors once it reaches its operating altitude and flies like a kite in figures of eight, generating power as its tether is pulled out from the ground station.
Phil Ritchie is a Melbourne-based journalist.