By Steve Outing
Image above is Penguin B drone by UAV Factory; cost: $50,000; record time aloft: 54.5 hours.
There are so many potential uses for small, inexpensive drones that the commercial UAV industry is likely to grow to a multi-billion-dollar one in fairly short order. (The growth will really take off if and when the FAA meets its deadline for issuing regulations on commercial drone use and incorporating drones into American airspace by 2015. I’m no expert on other countries’ laws governing UAVs, but I suspect that many other nations will be less restrictive on drone manufacturers and users than the U.S.)
Commercial drones can be scary, or exciting. They can perform evil (a paparazzi photographer using a drone to spy in the windows of a celebrity’s bedroom) or great good (surveying vast agricultural land to guide farmers in planning ideal watering strategy, or inexpensively surveying railroad tracks to watch for damage and call in for repairs).
Recently I had a conversation with futurist Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute, and he predicted a use for drones that was new to me. Imagine a fleet of drones regularly flying over a national park or a forested area with lots of housing during fire season — the Black Forest residential area near Colorado Springs where nearly 600 houses were destroyed by a fire recently would be an obvious example — with sensors to catch wildfires soon after they start, and can be extinguished easily. Frey envisions the wildfire-watch drones signaling fire officials, who might send out traditional firefighting equipment, or even launch a “water drone” capable of dousing a fire when it’s still small, or in an inaccessible area.
(Let’s leave aside the debate about the wisdom of not letting forests burn, which eventually results in mega-fires like one currently burning in southern Colorado. Frey’s fire-finding and -fighting drones make sense for areas that we can’t afford to let burn.)
Drones also are and will become even more useful to emergency responders: rescuers searching for a lost hiker, or monitoring the spread of a wildfire. And this is where I foresee a problem, for which I hope a solution will arise at some point:
Journalists will begin to have their own drones in the future (those helicopters are expensive to operate!), and a news organization covering, say, a wildfire will want to get its own drones above the scene. How will that go over with fire officials trying to put out a fire and managing their own aircraft (manned and unmanned)? Yeah, not well. News drones will be restricted just as journalists are kept a distance away from active disaster scenes so that they won’t interfere with officials handling the situation.
PREDICTION: The solution will be that in time emergency-responder drones will make available a media feed of what their cameras and sensors are seeing. Government officials won’t like this, but expect to see the open-records movement push for access to image feeds from emergency-responder drones. I think they’ll succeed, but not until after some fights over the rights to public drone streaming data in non-security related situations like aerial video of a wildfire in progress.