Drones Have Reached a Tipping Point—Here’s What Happens Next

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Unexpected convergent consequences...this is what happens when eight different exponential technologies all explode onto the scene at once. This post (four of seven) is a look at drones. Future posts will look at other tech areas, and be sure to read the first three posts if you haven't already:

When the World Is Wired: The Magic of the Internet of Everything
Where Artificial Intelligence Is Now and What’s Just Around the Corner
The Near Future of VR and AR: What You Need to Know

An expert might be reasonably good at predicting the growth of a single exponential technology (e.g., 3D printing), but try to predict the future when AI, robotics, VR, drones, and computation are all doubling, morphing and recombining. You have a very exciting (read: unpredictable) future. This year, at my Abundance 360 Summit, I decided to explore this concept in sessions I called "Convergence Catalyzers."

For each technology, I brought in an industry expert to identify their top five recent breakthroughs (2012-2015) and their top five anticipated breakthroughs (2016-2018). Then, we explored the patterns that emerged.

Drones — Context

At A360 this year, my expert on drones was Chris Anderson.

Chris is the founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, where he has built one of the most successful UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) businesses and an incredibly large community of drone enthusiasts called DIY Drones. Chris was formerly the editor-in-chief of WIRED Magazine. To put it lightly, he is brilliant, and if you want to know anything about drones, Chris is the guy to talk to.

Before we dive in, here's some more context.

A drone is an aerial robot that can be controlled remotely or autonomously.

Over the past few years, a technological tipping point driven by the smartphone electronics industry has demonetized the price of drones and democratized their use for everyone.

The cost of MEMs, accelerometers and gyroscopes have dropped 10- to 100-fold at the same time that cheap and powerful microcontrollers enable low-cost and powerful navigational control systems.

As a result, we now have drones that everyone can use, and companies like DJI and 3D Robotics are enabling both a consumer and entrepreneurial drone renaissance.

With the addition of next-generation sensors and high bandwidth communications, drones are now effective data gathering platforms used by the construction, agriculture, oil and gas and security industries.

At the same time, both Amazon and Google have announced much-anticipated drone package delivery services.

Soon, further advances in exponential technologies, batteries and material sciences will create another tipping point in drone technology, making them smart, cheap, reliable, scalable (both small and large), and ultimately ubiquitous.

Top 5 Recent Drone Breakthroughs: 2012 – 2015

Here are the breakthroughs Chris identified in drones from 2012-2015.

1. Drones go into mainstream business in construction, oil and gas and agriculture.

Over the past few years, drones have moved from the "government phase" to the "consumer phase" into the "commercial phase."

In the consumer phase, the drone was more toy than tool. The video capabilities and simple flight interfaces made them fun and accessible. But more recently, these toys have been rapidly turning into tools, and we're thinking of them now as "sensors in the sky."

"It's almost like we forget about the drone. Now, we are just connecting a sensor to the cloud and that sensor's in the air. It's below the satellites and above street view."

These sensor platforms ("drones") are now being used in real estate, precision agriculture, oil and gas, construction, and many other domains.

2. Cloud-connected consumer drones run distributed computation, running apps on drone, phone and cloud simultaneously.

"With today's drones you get connectivity, you get the cloud, and if you architect your system correctly, the drone is just an extension of the Internet."

When you distribute the computational task between these three things (the drone, the cloud, and the Internet), you get a very powerful platform that can do an extraordinary number of things, intelligently and at scale — think of it as extending the App Store into the physical world and the sky.

3. Powerful onboard Linux processors appear on sub-$1,000 drones.

"Drones are very powerful computing platforms," says Anderson. "They now have built-in, Linux-based, computer vision technology. They look like toys (and you can use them as toys), but they're really flying AI platforms, and this is just the beginning."

"Right now we're doing 1 gigahertz but with these converging technologies, we're going to be moving to multicore, multi-gigahertz GPUs, DSPs, the works, and they're going to be selling for less than a thousand bucks."

4. Industry consortiums (e.g., Dronecode) emerge to build open software stack, drone policy leadership not driven by military.

Over the past few years, nonmilitary consortiums have emerged to push drone technology and collaboration forward. This particular movement is unique and impressive not only because so many people are collaborating/sharing, but also because it is so interdisciplinary.

Anderson expands, "We have the computer side; we have the computer vision side; we have the AI side; we have the cloud side; we have the applications side. No one company or industry knows all the potential applications."

5. Prices for autonomous GPS-guided drones fall 50% (US $500), go mass-market retail.

Drones are demonetizing rapidly. Ten years ago, drones were million-dollar military/industrial things. Today they are on the shelves of Walmart. But it didn't stop there...

Anderson explains further, "They started at $1,500 and now they're at $500 and they're soon going to $50, with even better technology onboard. The price decline in the industry is staggering."

So what's in store for the near future?

Top 5 Anticipated Drone Breakthroughs 2016 – 2018

Here are Anderson's predictions for the most exciting, disruptive developments coming in drone technology over the next three years. As entrepreneurs and investors, these are the areas you should be focusing on, as the business opportunities are tremendous.

1. Drones are increasingly based on cutting-edge smartphone technology (Qualcomm Snapdragon platform).

The drone industry is leveraging billions of dollars of investment going into this kind of revolution in our pockets. We are using commodity hardware and open-source software to outperform military systems faster and cheaper.

"This is just the beginning," says Anderson. "You will basically see supercomputer performance in toy level devices, just as we're already seeing with smartphones."

2. Computer vision, sense-and-avoid and optical tracking become standard in consumer drones.

The next big breakthrough in drone research will be "sense-and-avoid."

Right now, drones are either manually piloted or GPS piloted, but as we integrate them into our urban fabric, they'll need true autonomy.

Anderson expands, "Drones will need to have eyes. Sensors like radar, LiDAR, stereo vision, sonar, and they'll need to use this to autonomously avoid obstacles and fly. It's environmental awareness and it is necessary to safely navigate worlds they've never explored."

"Eventually, the data from autonomous drones will convince the regulators that they're safer than having a pilot."

3. Major software companies integrate drone data into core offerings, taking "reality capture" mainstream.

"It's really hard to digitize the physical world," says Anderson. "Satellites are too high, and two-thirds of the planet's covered by clouds at any given point in time. Street View is limited to the street. The way we're going to digitize the planet is by putting sensors out there on drones, with anywhere/anytime access to the sky."

Once we do that, we'll create the biggest big data opportunity we've ever seen. Autodesk, Salesforce, SAP, Google, etc. want to take that data and turn it into analytics to track all kinds of things, like how things change.

4. Drones surpass satellites in amount of data gathered and used.

A transition is happening — Earth observation started in the space age with satellites.

Anderson continues, "I believe we're going to see drones become the main way that we digitize the planet from the air. Satellites are going to be complementary, covering big areas but at lower resolution."

5. Drones become like Wi-Fi.

"Today the FCC doesn't have to regulate or give you a license for Wi-Fi because it's low power and self-de-conflicting — it's not a threat to anyone," says Anderson.

"In the future, as drones become small enough, with low kinetic energy, and smart enough, I believe the FAA will regulate them like Wi-Fi. We want the FAA to create kind of an 'open spectrum' sandbox to allow for huge amounts of innovation."

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Peter Diamandis

Dr. Peter Diamandis was recently named by Fortune Magazine as one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

He is the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation which leads the world in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions.

He is also the co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, a graduate-level Silicon Valley institution that counsels the world’s leaders on exponentially growing technologies.

Diamandis is also the co-founder and vice-chairman of Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a genomics and cell therapy-based company focused on extending the healthy human lifespan.

In the field of commercial space, Diamandis is co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, a company designing spacecraft to enable the detection and prospecting of asteroids for fuels and precious materials.He is the also co-founder of Space Adventures and Zero Gravity Corporation.

Diamandis is a New York Times bestselling author of two books: Abundance – The Future Is Better Than You Think and BOLD – How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.

He earned degrees in Molecular Genetics and Aerospace Engineering from MIT, and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

His motto is, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”

Discussion — 12 Responses

  • scanlabstudio February 29, 2016 on 1:52 pm

    AI Drones + Photogrammetry = Aerial color capture and realtime triangulation of entropy all around us bringing all this into VR and constructing visuals and narratives on the windshields of our self driving cars! Bring it.

    • DSM scanlabstudio February 29, 2016 on 2:25 pm

      Got a metric for the quality of the image geometry from a drone vs a satellite? What about spectral bandwidth and resolution?

  • Sean Robinson February 29, 2016 on 5:29 pm

    I would think the next big thing for drones would be stereoscopic vision with VR glasses. That’s what I’m waiting for anyway… Lightbridge technology with 2 channels giving a 3D fpv depth perception. It’s what I’m waiting for DJI to do anyway…

  • horseshoe7 March 1, 2016 on 11:23 am

    Good article… does a good job of summarizing the current and likely near-term situation.

    The only comment I have is the reference to the Qualcomm processor as the “defacto” processor because it will have widespread commercial cell phone usage… I would rather use a more general micro-controller, like the new Atmel 32-bit units such as used on the Arduino Due for anything more than the cheapest application-specific drone applications.

  • Robert La Quey March 1, 2016 on 5:16 pm

    The real slightly longer term opportunity for drones is use as transporters first of goods, think backend logistics of malls, then shortly after as mass transit systems. Boeing and the big aerospace firms have all the teechnology necessary now to design and build these transporters.

    I live in the Philippines where Manila has world class malls and world class traffic jams. Yet everywhere there is traffic I can look up a few hundred feet and see no traffic. Landing and interconnection starting with a large chain of malls, e.g SM is a natural, with rooftop droneports.

    Such a system could start with relatively small drones supplying comapies like Mercury Drugs, a pharmacy found in every SS mall.

    This could happen very rapidly, sweeping the Philippines, much like cell phones did in the 90’s.

    • DSM Robert La Quey March 1, 2016 on 6:01 pm

      You also have world class poverty and that would motivate people to use cheap drones with nets to intercept the courier drones so that they could take the packages, then having got the bigger drones they could reprogram them to act as predators against the other drones belonging to the same company. This would make it even hard to spot the robber drones from the legitimate ones.

      We could have trained dogs deliver packages to, if it wasn’t for what criminals would do to them.

      I mention dogs so that you can see the problem has nothing to do with drones, it is a people problem.

      I am not having a go at you personally and I can prove that I have raised the same issue elsewhere before today. What I have yet to see is an a proposed solution to the problem of the impact of criminals on commercial drone operations involving valuable cargo.

      • horseshoe7 DSM March 2, 2016 on 8:19 am

        Yes, the “cell phone technology analogy” doesn’t apply in the case of non-advanced countries, for exactly the reason you mention. Even in Mexico, which is about mid-way up the scale of nations, drone delivery wouldn’t work.

        … and it might not work even in the USA, due to a different set of “thieves”… the over-taxing/over-regulating/over-unionized do-nothing multiple layers of government… a good example is self-driving cars in California – which should be the LAST STATE Google/Tesla et al should be attempting to work with governments to develop the regulations to roll out this much-needed technology.

        Yes, THIEVERY is the biggest impediment to achieving Abundance.

      • Al X Var DSM March 8, 2016 on 9:05 am

        Poverty has to be close to getting wiped out with the speed of such advances. In an era where so much can be made so cheaply, basic needs can be met for all. Career criminals, on the other hand will likely be a problem for some time to come. Look at credit/debit card fraud for example, banks have spent a lot on EMV and other anti-fraud technology, but the ‘career criminals’ and emerging ‘dark web industries’ make headlines more than ever. Solving the ‘poverty’ problem does not stop the need for fair policing (who many times are under-resourced against criminals). Perhaps this kind of tech will also make life generally more transparent – so crime is less likely at all levels (from the petty crook to the corrupt official). Perhaps if people have their basic material needs addressed easily, they will be motivated to solve problems and discover new things, rather than obsessively accumulate money (legally or not).

        • DSM Al X Var March 8, 2016 on 12:44 pm

          I am hopeful that technology will improve the lives of many but, perhaps you are overlooking the extremely high incidence of mental illness amongst repeat offenders which would not be significantly improved by just giving people more money. It will take generations to cure humanity of it’s psychopathologies because while damaged people continue to have damaged children, and neglect them so that their potential is distorted even further, we will continue to have a significant level of criminal activity. And that is without even considering all of the psychopaths produced in reasonably affluent families and the harm they do to society.

          Considering abundance in isolation is like a Petri dish full of nutrients, it says nothing about what may flourish there.

  • Lowdin March 3, 2016 on 2:00 am

    Thanks for a great article! It is both scary and exciting to read about these things 🙂 I wish I was 20 and had the time to learn about all of this hehe