Personal pocket drones weighing just a few grams may soon become indispensable accessories, allowing people to take dronies instead of selfies and creating city-wide networks of sensors.
At the RE.WORK Future Cities summit in London this week, researchers from the UK and the Netherlands have spoken about latest developments in the autonomous aerial vehicle technology, which is slowly penetrating various areas of human activities from package deliveries to land surveying and medical care.
Bart Remes from the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, has demonstrated several of his team's inventions, most of them not larger than a human palm and weighing around 20g.
Though lightweight, Remes said, the drones, which look like aluminium-foil birds, are equipped with cutting-edge sensors and systems allowing for autonomous operations.
“We are now focusing on very small drones, so that one day you can have smart drones in your pockets instead of your smartphone,” Remes explained. “We hope that smart drones will be the next trend, maybe they will have their own Facebook apps so that no one could live without them anymore,” he joked, painting a picture of a future world where every individual walks around while being constantly accompanied by his or her small autonomous aircraft.
“Instead of taking selfies, people will be taking dronies, you would be able to take a picture of yourself from above while engaging in various activities with your friends for example.”
Remes’s research group, the Micro Aerial Vehicle Lab of the Delft University of Technology, has recently developed a miniature low-cost autopilot, which allows the pocket drones to operate autonomously outdoors as well is indoors, without access to the GPS signal.
The $200 device, considerably cheaper than earlier systems, could be commanded through a smartphone app.
“We are currently researching stereo vision systems for these miniature drones that would comfortably fit on a 4g drone, improving its ability to navigate through a busy city,” Remes said.
“The major advantage of our systems is their lightweight, which sort of removes the safety concerns. If a 4g drone crashes on your head, nothing will happen to you.”
Last year, the group introduced a 4g drone, which holds the official record of being the smallest aeroplane equipped with a functional camera.
In a separate presentation, director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory of Imperial College London Mirko Kovac likened drones to carrier pigeons that were commonly used throughout history to improve communication.
Though being sceptical about the prospects of drones becoming omnipresent in the near future in big cities, he said the world is certainly experiencing a ‘dronevolution’.
“Everyone can buy drones of all shapes and sizes these days, there is a lot of talk about drone delivery, Facebook is testing them for Internet coverage in remote areas,” he said.
“There is a lot of potential in them but there are still many limitations. I don’t believe that drone delivery in large cities such as London will happen very soon, but I believe it may come really soon in the developing world – to deliver goods and medical supplies, like blood in Africa.”
The convenience of automated drone deliveries in remote areas wouldn’t be hindered by safety concerns and the complexity of landscape, the researcher said.
“In cities there are large buildings, there would be other drones which could collide with each other, there would be crowds of people walking below,” Kovac said. “Integrating drones into the city traffic would certainly be challenging.”
Kovac’s research group looks for inspiration in nature. Fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution and natural selection, the working of living bodies has been perfected beyond the capabilities of current engineering. However, by learning from the master the researchers believe they can overcome many challenges.
“At Imperial, we are developing drones for future cities that could be used for example to sample water for pollutants, monitor the environment, but also to inspect and repair buildings and other structures,” Kovac said.
“We are looking, for example, at water birds trying to mimic their abilities to create amphibious drones capable of flying above the sea in swarms and diving quickly into the water to collect samples of toxic spills.”
Imperial College London has recently announced a £1.25m investment to build a new research lab for flying robots.
Both Kovac and Remes believe the business case for drones is very solid. The Technical University of Delft team recently experimented with an ambulance drone carrying a defibrillator that could be sent to patients struck by a heart attack to provide immediate help
But there are many industries which could benefit from the ‘dronevolution’. “You can imagine a flying robot equipped with polyurethane foam inspecting buildings and other structures for cracks and faults and autonomously fixing them,” said Kovac. “Similarly, drones could be used to service solar cells or clean windows of skyscrapers.”
One day, the researchers believe, swarms of autonomous drones flying around in a coordinated manner without human intervention would form a new, flying layer of the world’s infrastructure.
Earlier this month, Mayor of London Boris Johnson called for London's tech companies to develop personal delivery drones that could collect parcels and groceries, hoping that the technology could help relieve London's traffic jams.