From Amazon to burritos: 10 things you need to know about consumer drones
Amazon wants to use drones for parcel delivery, but UAVs are making their way into our lives in other ways too
1 Moving beyond warzones
The use of drones – unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs for short – in military conflicts remains controversial. But drones have consumer uses too, and a growing number of companies are pouring money into making them mainstream in the years ahead. One of those firms, 3D Robotics, raised $30m of funding in September, while the Federal Aviation Administration expects 30,000 drones to be flying over the US alone in 20 years’ time.
2 Parrot’s AR.Drone 2.0
Perhaps the best-known consumer drone is Parrot’s AR.Drone, which is in its second-generation model. It’s a “quadricopter” controlled from your smartphone or tablet, which is capable of zipping around for 36 minutes at a time, recording and streaming video. £279 in the UK, it has an add-on Flight Recorder accessory that uses GPS to navigate a pre-set route, and plot it on a map.
3 First Person View (FPV)
Besides UAV, another abbreviation you’ll often see used when talking about consumer drones is FPV, for First Person View. That refers to drones capable of recording video as they go and streaming it so the owner can steer as if they were sitting in the drone. Some, like the AR.Drone 2.0, offer FPV through their built-in cameras. Others, like the Lehmann LA100, use cameras like the GoPro Hero3+correct, and there’s plenty of sites explaining how keener owners can build their own FPV drones too.
4 Military inspiration
Having said that consumer drones are moving away from the military world, it’s fair to say that a number of them take their design inspiration from the drones being used in warzones. The 4 Channel Predator/Reaper Style UAV Drone RC Plane is a miniature version of the US air force’s RQ-1 Predator UAV, for example, encouraging buyers to “fly your own covert missions”. For anyone who’s followed the debate about military drone-related deaths, the comparison may be distasteful though.
5 Price: how high can it go?
There’s a wide range of consumer drones available. Sub-£100 devices aren’t a huge leap from traditional remote-controlled helicopters, with the real action happening between £200 and £400 – although prices are likely to come down over the next year or two. 3D Robotics’ 3DR Iris costs $729.99 in the US, but prices go as high as $30,000 for the Aibotix Aibot X6 UAV, which is more focused on commercial use – for example, by filmmakers . Not the kind of thing you’d want to slam into a tree.
6 There’s apps for them
One of the key features of consumer drones is their ability to be controlled by smartphone and tablet apps, although how open they are to developers varies. The AR.Drone led the way in terms of getting apps beyond pure controllers. AR.Race 2 runs on iPhones and iPads, and operates as a racing game for the drone, with players taking turns to complete a course as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, AR.Rescue 2 is an augmented reality game with virtual aliens that need rescuing. Expect to see more of this as drones get more popular.
7 Commercial uses growing
As more drones get into the hands of individuals, so they’ll start using them for work. Germany has a Dönercopter delivering doner kebabs, California has a Burrito Bomber delivering burritos. Sydney firm Flirtey runs a flying book-delivery service. Journalists and activists have also used drones: US journalist Tim Pool customised a drone – the Occucopter – and flew it above the Occupy Wall Street protests to stream footage to the outside world, for example.
8 Drones aren’t just about air
They are swimming and walking too. Portuguese company Azorean raised $127,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to make Ziphius, which it described as “the first app-controlled aquatic drone that plays augmented reality games and shows autonomous behaviours”. It’s expected to go on sale in 2014. Meanwhile, the Walkera QR Infra X Smart Drone walks around the house, has sensors to avoid collisions, and can even climb the stairs.
9 Is this legal?
There’s been a lot of debate – more so in the US – about the legality of non-military drones, more in connection with commercial uses and the potential for spying on people. Legal bans on commercial drones left the way clear for consumer models to come out – some of which can be used for commercial purposes. Expect to see some high-profile publicity too if anyone misuses their drone: people buzzing their neighbours’ barbecues or spying on spouses or smacking someone in the face with a falling quadricopter could all spark lawsuits.
10 March into the mainstream
Consumer drones are a growing niche. There’s even already a beginner’s guide-style e-book: Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones, to demystify the area. They also fit into wider trends, from GoPro and other wearable cameras to Lego Mindstorms robotics, that will make them seem less strange in time. That should make 2013 and 2014 a good time for serious discussion about the social implications of the technology.