Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The age of ubiquitous drones and the challenges overhead

The tone for the new decade was set by the MQ-9 Reaper drone when it let loose a Hellfire R9X missile at Qassem Soleimani, the powerful chief of Iran’s Quds Force. A few days before that, less lethal drones monitored crowds of student protesters rocking India. The Reaper is not alone, there are others with equally threatening names, like Predator and Raptor, loitering over remote mountainous terrains in search of prey to fire laser-guided missiles at.

The word “drone", however, has very innocent roots. It refers to impotent males in a beehive that spend their lives gathering honey and doing hive work before dying. The Drones Club, made famous by P.G. Wodehouse, was one where single Englishmen would gather for their afternoon tea and tipple. It is not surprising, however, that drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) today have militaristic connotations as the early drones were born of war. The real boost to drone tech came when the US military started a comprehensive UAV programme after Russians shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane in 1960.

Drones are still largely used for military or policing purposes, but they also have other uses. They are used for recreation and sports. The Chinese company DJI dominates this space. Logistics is another use, with Amazon developing last-mile drone delivery. At scale, this delivery model can save money, energy and time. Domino’s extended this logic to deliver its first pizza by drone in New Zealand and is experimenting with scaling this model up in many markets.

Drones, however, are best used in agriculture, aerial photography, rescue missions and insurance. An exciting startup called Terraview uses drones with advanced image processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality to increase the productivity of vineyards. A drone can be used to measure the amount of grain that’s piled up after harvest, or even the amount of coal in a mine stockpile. Tata Steel has used drones quite effectively to measure mining output. Drones can go where people cannot, so inspection and repair at remote wind farms on an island, or pipelines in the remote tundra, or equipment in a rainforest can be done more cheaply and precisely.

Drone surveillance is now widely used by the insurance industry in the aftermath of floods or pest inspections. They can provide organizations a 360-degree view of the status of any construction project and its assets. In many places, it is just safer to send a drone, such as while using explosives in deep mines or defusing suspected bombs. An example is a company called Flyability Elios, which uses drones for sewer inspections and cleaning in Barcelona. The WingtraOne VTOL drones are used to survey wildlife and detect poaching in the jungles of Africa. Botswana has had some successful trials where drones have delivered blood and life-saving drugs to villages out in the wilderness.

Drones will soon become a hardware commodity, much like personal computers. It will be the software loaded on it that will be the real force-multiplier. Newer business models like “drones-as-a-service" will emerge, dramatically reducing the time taken for tasks and serving as a vital tool in the Industry 4.0 revolution.

Perhaps the most fascinating developments will occur where drones originated, in warfare. Drones will mutate into swarms, where multiple, intelligent, small drones act as one vast network, much like a swarm of birds or locusts. Advanced militaries have drone swarms under trial that could revolutionize future conflicts. These swarms could overwhelm enemy sensors with sheer numbers and precisely target enemy soldiers and assets using data fed into them. They will be difficult to shoot down as there will be hundreds of small flying objects rather than one big ballistic missile. The swarm will use real-time ground data to organize itself and operate in concert to achieve its goal. While this technology is still in experimentation stage, a swarm smart enough to coordinate its own moves is moving closer to reality.

Like everything else in technology, it will be us humans who will decide whether we use drones for beneficial or malevolent ends. Drones can indeed be a fantastic tool for good projects, from helping save the planet to identifying and nabbing criminals, and preventing the loss of human life. However, for that, we will have to change the DNA that they were born with, as lethal weapons of war. Otherwise, they will remain anonymous killers, wreaking death and destruction as they hover innocuously above.

Jaspreet Bindra is a digital transformation and technology expert, and author of the book ‘The Tech Whisperer’

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