(Original Article found at Popular Science Magazine, August 2014 Issue.)
We know what you’re thinking: love drones? Those ominous, free-floating, sometimes unseen killers that have walked our nation out onto some perilously thin ice, geopolitically and ethically? Even the word itself is loaded. No one can agree on what a drone is, exactly, or whether they should be referred to as drones at all. Turns out we don’t just think about drones. We have feelings about drones.
But yes, there is plenty to love beyond the headlines about the Middle East. Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establishes airspace rules, which is likely to happen next year, the drone industry could fuel a decade-long, $82-billion economic boom, according to a study done by the industry’s leading trade group. Already, one analyst estimates the global market for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at $250 million to $300 million. The truth is, we’re witnessing a Kitty Hawk moment—the start of an era in which drones will change the world and the way we live in it. They’ve saved lives overseas; at home, they will make our cities and grids smarter, keep people safer, and help save our planet. And, as you’ll see on these pages, they can be fun, too.
1) They’ll soon deliver your pizza
In the past year, unmanned drones have delivered textbooks, medical supplies, pizza, burritos, and a nearly full case of cold beer. The FAA grounded such commercial flights until new regulations are in place, but that hasn’t stopped companies like Amazon from trying to tackle the technical and logistical questions associated with delivery by flying robot.
Once the skies are (inevitably) cleared for such activity, this trend will go far beyond flying a Domino’s across town. The start-up Matternet is designing a node-based delivery system to extend drones’ range. Its quadcopters will land at stations to either swap out spent batteries for new ones or relay payloads to fully charged drones. Later this year, Matternet plans to test the system by delivering medical supplies to remote regions of Africa.
2) They can elevate those Facebook and Instagram photos to a whole new level
For the amateur photographers among us—and let’s face it, in this age of smartphones, that’s most of us—drones can help us capture high-flying imagery worth a thousand likes. The aerial photos look so good, real estate agents now use them to show off properties for sale.
3) They will democratize the Internet
More than half the global population lacks Internet access, but with its purchase of Titan Aerospace in April, Google could bring millions more online. According to an early report, once the tech is dialed in, Titan’s 164-foot-wide solar-powered craft will soar at 65,000 feet, bringing new parts of the world online.