Like computers, drones began their lives in relative obscurity. Kids and film enthusiasts loved them, but to everyone else, they were little more than a sideshow. A curiosity. A toy you might dabble in at the weekend. 

Drones, though, are the technology that keeps on giving. It turns out that when you give smartphones wings (or rotors), you open up a world of opportunities that could vastly improve the average person’s quality of life. 

Over the last several years, drones have become central pillars of the function of a large number of businesses, from construction companies to military organizations. The ability to have “eyes in the sky” for practically zero cost (relatively speaking) is turning heads and getting entrepreneurs thinking. Could this be the new platform we’ve all been waiting for?

Granted, drones probably won’t transform our world in the way that the desktop computer did, but they might. We’ve moved well beyond the initial stages where the odd innovator dabbled in the concept. Now we’re in the middle of a mega-trend that spans industries and companies. It seems that practically everyone, and their dog, stands to benefit in some way from these vehicles. 

 

The History Of Drones

 

Drones first burst onto the scene in WWI. Both the US and French militaries began trying to develop reconnaissance aircraft that didn’t require a pilot. These early designs weren’t particularly useful. However, by the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, they were in widespread use in the military. The air force could see the terrain and launch attacks on ground troops, without requiring any human presence in the sky. 

 

Even in the 1990s, though, people hadn’t really thought about the colossal role that drones could play in our society. Yes, they had military applications, but their ability to make a real difference to the lives of the average person wasn’t well understood. 

 

Drones though went through a period of exponential change in the decade following the release of the Apple iPhone. Suddenly, all the components available to handheld devices also become usable on drones. With miniaturization and improvements in lithium-ion cells, battery life reached the point where small, electric drones were possible. From around 2010, the capabilities of these devices became apparent, and today we’re on what seems like the precipice of a revolution. 

Applications Of Drones

The applications of drones are simply staggering.

Here’s a list of some of the ways that experts are using them or think they could use them in the future.

 

  • Unmanned cargo transport. Imagine a world where you could ship goods across the country instantly using an unmanned aerial vehicle. Well, it will likely soon become possible, because of the fact that creating an autonomous flying vehicle is much easier than one that uses the roads. We could see this technology rolled out very quickly, perhaps even as early as 2025. 
  • Precision crop monitoring. Currently, agtech is dabbling in the idea of placing sensors around crops to measure conditions and then feed data to a central computer. The problem with this setup is that it measures soil and light metrics around crops, not the plants themselves. Drones for precision crop monitoring could change all this, providing direct, visual measurements. 
  • Building safety inspections. Drone surveys are already a prominent feature of the construction industry. Companies don’t want people crawling across unfinished sites if they can avoid it because of the risk of injury. So they’re ploughing their money into systems that allow them to do it remotely. And it’s working. 

Express shipping. So-called “last-mile” delivery is a challenge right now. Getting goods from the local warehouse to recipients takes a lot of time and energy, 

  • especially if it requires driving a van around city streets. Drones, however, can potentially bypass all that. Packers at the warehouse simply load the drone and send it on its merry way. 
  • Border surveillance. There’s increased government demand for improved border security. But keeping tabs on vast stretches of land isn’t easy. You can’t station guards along thousands of miles of fencing. Drones, though, help border security marshal forces in a more targeted manner. Their cameras can scan for illegal entry and then alert authorities who can then descend on the site. 
  • Thermal sensors for search and rescue. Helicopter rescue can only scan a relatively small amount of water or land, even if it has sophisticated cameras onboard. A fleet of drones equipped with thermal scanners, however, could cover a much larger area, finding any stranded people quicker by picking up on their heat signature. 
  • Journalism photography. Already, we’re seeing journalists and businesses using drones to report events. While cameramen will likely remain, drones give reporters more flexibility. It lets them create compelling, beautiful reports without having first to assemble their team. 
  • Disaster supply delivery. New Orleans struggled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The city ran out of supplies quickly and required delivery over land. Trucks, however, couldn’t make their way to critical districts because of flooding, making the problem worse. Delivery drones, on the other hand, could bypass both roads and flooding, delivering cargo to roofs when needed. 
  • It is very likely that we still haven’t explored all of the possible areas in which drones could improve our lives. The list above is very much a catalogue of the obvious applications, but there will undoubtedly be more. Perhaps the most revolutionary will be in the realm of personal transportation. There seems to be no technological reason why drones couldn’t ferry people from airports to downtown and back again in the near future. And long-term, drones could become the flying cars of science fiction. Commercial drone expenditure grew at a compound rate of 19 per cent from 2015 to 2020. If that continues, the market will grow 100-fold in the twenty years – a radical shift. By the end of the 2020s, it should be clear to everyone where the value of this technology lies.

    Drones, therefore, rival AI in terms of their importance for the coming decade. It will be interesting to see which innovation wins out in the impact stakes.