Remote-controlled aircraft are a central plank of American military strategy. But the implications for everyday use are exciting – and a little scary.
Trendspotting: the age of the personal drone?
It's commonplace now to observe that the technologies that are transforming our lives often had their origins in war. Before GPS was the feature in your smartphone that allows you to check into your favourite cupcake shop on Foursquare or seal that deal on Groupon, it was secret military technology that allowed the cruise missiles launched by fighter jets to find their targets.
Now, another technology that experts say is set to change our lives is hiding in plain sight after being incubated by the military. Are you ready for the rise of the drones?
Currently, drones - or remotely piloted aircraft, as the US Air Force prefers to call them - are a fundamental part of the US war strategy. The US has made hundreds of drone strikes against suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda militants on the Afghan-Pakistan border since 2004 (Barack Obama uses them more often than George W Bush did). Those drones are piloted from the CIA HQ in Langley, by pilots whose window on the drone’s location is a computer screen.
Cue an endless (and fascinating) discussion about the ethics of warfare by remote control. But surely the implications of drone technology for daily life are limited? Think again.
The thought that drones may soon become a central tool of domestic law enforcement is already a live political issue in the US. Recently, the New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said he sees no problem with police using drones for city surveillance. And that's just the start.
"The sky's going to be dark with these things," says Chris Anderson, the former editor of the tech magazine Wired. Anderson has invested in his prediction: he left Wired to focus on his start-up, 3D Robotics, which sells drones. Sales are currently at 7,500 drones per quarter.
In 2015, Federal Aviation Administration rules will allow drones to travel in domestic US airspace (so long as they stay under 400 metres and more than eight kilometres from any airport). The courier service provider FedEx will reportedly start using drones to transport packages to customers. Meanwhile, farmers want to send drone formations out over their crops to scout for early signs of disease. Rescue services will send drones up mountains to locate stranded or injured climbers.
But perhaps most exciting - or alarming, depending on your outlook - is Anderson's prediction that the drone revolution will go the way of the computer revolution: it's set to go personal. Anderson says that in fewer than 10 years we'll be in the era of the personal drone.
The drones sold by 3D Robotics - which are about the size of a large laptop and cost from about US$450 (Dh1,653) - offer an idea of how your personal drone might look. Want to collect something from a friend or, eventually, a business? Set your drone on the job. Want to check out a location for a forthcoming party? Your drone can visit and relay video back to you in real time. Or perhaps you're about to ski an amazing slope. Set your drone to "follow me" mode and it will accompany you and capture video to share on Facebook.
It's yet another sign of the way the digital revolution is allowing us a new, undreamt-of mastery over the physical world. If you can't see personal drones catching on, you're not alone. But who knows what is under development deep in the labs of Apple, Samsung and Google?
So, 2015: the year of the iDrone?
David Mattin is lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com
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