What can drones do for you?

They say the internet is comprised of seven layers. Is it only seven? Feels like seventy. Personally I’m starting to get exhausted from relaying my consciousness back and forth from datasphere to biosphere and back again.

The feeling is like driving through the same intersection 128 times a day. It’s tough to prioritize things in the modern world. Everything has a notification and every notification is important. Why else would they flash high intensity LEDs and vibrate in my pants?

Fortunately that’s where drones fits in. The family tree of technology is as follows: military, industrial, commercial, then the box store. What we need next would be an immersive interface to reduce the differences between where I am physically located and what output devices are feeding my sensorium. Something like virtual reality perhaps, which I hear will soon be coming to a Best Buy near you.

Put all this together and the next media platform has been born: simulated sensorium. With enough drones and enough remote sensors anything becomes my reality so long as someone has pushed the content. Commercial drones will establish a new grid of ad-hoc micro-networks ready to feed our media needs.

UAVs killed the Internet Star

The key word here is “drone” which implies a certain level of autonomy. Quite simply to use drones as a media platform we would need thousands of them deployed as ubiquitously as possible. That much air traffic would be impossible to manage by humans.

We would depend on their ability to identify elements of the world around them not only to negotiate physical obstacles but also be capable of relocating themselves to places of potential media relevance. For example a batch of drones may be linked to Twitter. When a certain hashtag begins to trend, such as #Ferguson, they relocate themselves for a better view of events.

Simultaneously they are forming ad-hoc networks with one another, supplying and demanding connection to the cloud. Of course some of these drones will be from the big media clearing houses like Reuters or AP. Others will come from more mainstream networks like CNN and FOX. And yet another batch will come from socially conscious aggregators with an interest in sharing their bandwidth to people on the scene via their drones.

People tuning in via telepresence will see real events in real time from dozens of possible locations as if they were there. In a case like Ferguson this means seeing the tear gas, hearing the protestors, maybe even joining the rally from your smartphone or tablet.

Or we could switch gears to a more personal view of things. The one on one interview with a celebrity or politician becomes a casual meeting for coffee.

When one drone washes the other.

Another key word to consider is “autonomy”. In the above model a topic crests the curvature of trending algorithms, which prompts certain behaviors in the local drone networks. With their built in autonomy, which is rudimentary from unit to unit, the swarms of drones begin to exhibit what is called emergent behavior. This is behavior whereby a group of individual units begin to behave independently as one.

Since these units are capable of basic problem solving with the world around them, why not with each other as well? 3D printers could allow modifications to be made to other drones, from repairs to the fabrication of additional tools. Given enough iterations, factor in a few other bleeding edge technologies like quantum processors and sooner or later the drones will invent a tool or process we’ve never seen before to solve problems we may not even be aware of.

But let’s get it out of the way…

The term “drone” is usually in the vicinity of words like “strike” and “surveillance”. What I’ve done is paint a rather idealistic portrayal that is the antithesis of what the media has compelled us to associate with the word “drone”. In fact talk to any drone enthusiast and you will see eyes roll at the mention of the term, preferring instead UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

Yes, they kill on command and spy on “the enemies of freedom”. Let’s talk about that for a moment. I won’t even attempt to justify or defend the use of any technology that is designed to kill, spy, or invade but most technologies have this unfortunate detail common to their development. I don’t defend that truth, in fact I openly criticize it.

But fact is we didn’t get cracking on the digital processor until England decided to do something about those Nazis everyone was worried about. And the first thing we did with that technology? Churchill allowed Germany to destroy Coventry to keep ENIAC’s existence a secret.

But maybe we can put the boiler plate cautionary tale rhetoric that follows any new technology aside for a moment.

Debunking privacy concerns.

Should you get to see a drone in operation the first thing you will note is they are loud, a crucial detail often left out of the press. Even the small ones that can fit in your hand are as noisy as you might imagine. Engineers who are constructing and designing UAVs don’t see that changing so long as drones are powered by rotating props.

Quite simply, making all that air move to create lift makes a lot of noise. That’s not to say we might not overcome that engineering difficulty but that would require a true paradigm shift in propulsion physics and aerodynamics combined. So for now should a drone decide to hover about your presence you will know it.

What about high altitude drones? Again, no dice. The cameras needed to capture ground details from high altitude are still quite bulky. For example a camera capable of a ground sampling distance of 4 inches per pixel at an altitude of several thousand feet (which isn’t enough to see a face or even a license plate) weighs quite a bit more than a small drone is capable of taking off with. You’re better off worrying about planes leaving chemtrails if conspiracies are your thing.

Quite simply drones as we imagine them used by big brother are not very effective for privacy invasion. Even if we could develop drones around these challenges why go through the hassle and expense of operating a fleet of small aircraft when the owners of smartphones willingly broadcast their profiles to the cloud several times a second?

Finally our urban infrastructure of concrete and steel plays havoc on the operation of small aircraft. Air currents get very strange around tall buildings. Additionally the surface of buildings, even wood and plaster ones, interfere with the radio signals GPS and WiFi are dependent upon. An Orwellian fleet of police drones (or my idealistic free media drones for that matter) would not be very effective unless we lowered our buildings to a more manageable height and rebuilt them with materials radio waves can permeate.

Now that I’ve got the fear mongering out of the way. What can drones do for you? As it turns out, EVERYTHING. Especially if you’re a member of the oldest profession. That’s right, farming.

Did I say Farming?

It is projected that 80% of all commercial drone use will be in agriculture.

Let’s say you’re an independent organic farmer actively participating in a sustainable crop and trading on the co-op level with other growers of a similar capacity. In this context drones make perfect sense for the small time operator.

A farmer could make quick and detailed observations of an entire field quickly and inexpensively. Drones could even be modified to aid with cultivation and harvesting of crops. Farming co-ops could collectively own and manage their own drones or small businesses could spring up offering the service.

A simple cost analysis between manned and unmanned aircraft reveals quite a bit of savings. This is a potentially huge breakthrough for the sustainability movement. Agriculture is what gave rise to the idea of information in the first place. It stands to reason the more data you have about your crop and your environment the better you’ll be at producing a better crop.

Affordable, reliable, accurate data collection.

Drones all come down to the collection of data. Sustainability through better data is a no-brainer. Everything about the contemporary modern landscape is facilitated by how much we know at any given second.

Our society is dependent on fast accurate information to make long term decisions about large systems. If we send drones into the field we can collect that information quickly and inexpensively. More importantly we can do it independent of large organizations with the equipment and manpower to dominate the field of agro-logistics.

At the end of the day we’re talking about bits. Data. What we know and what we’re capable of doing with that information. Our ability to acquire data about the physical world relies on the sensory input we feed to the cloud. That works both ways, for giants like Google, for Farmer Betty and her trio of farm hands, the co-op they work with and the community that eats the food. More so if small operators can independently collect the relevant part of what big data offers without sacrificing their bits to the cloud.

Project Morpheus

Ferguson on Twitter

Emergent Behavior

USA Today: Drones in Agriculture

AUVSI Cost Analysis