drones away


Drones are everywhere. Although UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been around for quite some time (some dating back to WW I), as miniaturization and general technology advances they are turning up everywhere. Drones are operated by the military, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists & activists, journalists, geographers, grassroots organizations, farmers,  hobbyists, but alas also criminal organizations.
Privacy advocates are worried about civil liberties, psychologists worry about the difference between fighter pilot and drone-pilot decisions, about a contextual & emotional disconnect, … yet relief organizations, construction companies etc. also see major opportunities. Technology is neutral, yet how we develop and employ it obviously is not.
The UAV logic challenges traditional notions of flight. It is basically an answer to: “what if the pilot wouldn’t need to be in the plane?” Hence we got “unmanned aerial vehicles”, remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground. In an insightful article by Monocle, Eli Dotan – senior director of unmanned aerial systems at Elbit, Israel’s largest non-governmental defense organization – notes: “the US declared last year that for the first time the number of UAV operators trained was larger than air force pilots, and this is a trend”.
Obviously this is but a first step. With accelerating advances in artificial intelligence and complexity science, one can easily envision times ahead in which to a large extent these drones carry out their missions autonomously on the basis of a brief like
any traditional pilot would.
Furthermore, both aesthetically & technically, not all drones need are like scale-model aircraft or quadrocopters. Some aim to blend in with nature much more profoundly. Festo’s SmartBird exemplifies but one way in which a drone could blend in with a flock of birds. The DelFly Micro dragonfly shows a glimpse of a whole new range of ‘creatures’ up in the sky, so called MAVs (Micro Aerial Vehicles) (see also iMAV). Update: An impressive video by the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP project team shows a swarm 20 autonomous quad rotors flying formations (see Wired article). From stealth cladded UAV’s to, MAVs blending in with nature, we can easily envision more ‘smart dust’ like contraptions, virtually invisible to the human eye. Threats and possibilities seem to scale exponentially along with technological advance.
Remotely controlled eyes in the sky are one thing, a pair of hands another. In their project Flight-assembled architecture, Gramazio & Kohler and Raffaello D’Andrea show their drones semi-autonomously constructing a tower. And how about “a zero-emission, autonomous, nomad, hydrogen-based airship that will never land”? Check out Lieven Standaert’s Aeromodeller2.

Image shows Gatewing’s X100, Ghent (Belgium).

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