What does the future of drones look like?

An annual convention offers a glimpse at new drone technologies, from solar-powered vehicles to autonomous Roombas

Published August 22, 2013 3:27PM (EDT)

Last week in Washington, D.C., the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world's largest trade association for unmanned vehicles (better known as drones), held its annual Unmanned Systems convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Something like a middle school science fair–meets–science fiction convention, the event was an opportunity for companies from all over the world to show off everything from the Solara 50, a solar–powered drone that can fly at 60,000 feet for up to five years (!) to the now–mainstream Roomba vacuum cleaners that guide themselves around the house sucking up debris and providing a comfortable perch for shark costume–wearing cats.

Judging from the drones on show at the convention, the industry is now where the aviation industry was in 1911, less than a decade after the Wright brothers' first flight. As in any display of nascent technology, the convention had its share of inventions that weren't quite there yet. Everywhere you looked, there was a lot of glue, balsa wood, mechanical failures, and engineers frantically trying to recharge batteries before their next demo.

The inventions that did seem ready for flight at Unmanned Systems 2013 ranged from the absolutely hairbrained, like Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University's Velcro–equipped quadcopter drone ("It works well," explained Gene Gamble, one of the students who designed the drone, "if you are landing on a piece of Velcro") to the flat–out terrifying (Northrop Grumman's X–47B stealth drone is intelligent enough to land on an aircraft carrier by itself). While some of the products, like the Synbotics rovers, autonomous devices that will follow its owner wherever he or she goes, were just so cool that they make you feel like a child all over again, others, like Controp's super–creepy cameras, which can pick up a person's facial expression from 30,000 feet, at night, leave you cold with fear of a dystopian future.

As you might expect, a lot of the creations at the show were for killing people, or for spying on people in order to kill them later. While military and law enforcement applications for drones grab attention and headlines, increasingly, people are finding uses for unmanned technology in the civilian sector. In some cases, all it takes to turn a killing machine into something less dangerous is the removal of armaments from the robot, and a re–skinning so that military colors become a little friendlier. These devices, like Boston Dynamics' obstacle–hopping SandFlea, Lockheed Martin's SMSS robot truck, and, and AeroVironment's Puma AE and Raven drones, can be used for search and rescue, freight, or precision agriculture. Teledyne Technologies makes a camera that can detect the ripeness of grapes in a vineyard––no joke.

Many of the devices on display were not for sale (not yet anyway), but there were a few you can actually buy. They're not cheap. Prioria's cool wrapable Maveric drone, which can fly for up to 75 minutes and carries a high–resolution optical zoom camera, would be perfect for filming your kid's little league game. Of course, it costs $30,000, so unless your team is sponsored by a well–financed military contractor, you'll probably stick with your iPhone.

High cost to entry aside, the Federal Aviation Authority will open U.S. airspace to commercial and civilian unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015, which could mean a lot more unmanned devices hovering over a town near you. By the industry's (admittedly self–serving) estimates, the domestic drone business could be worth up to $400 billion in the next few years. This potential windfall may explain the giddy feeling of hype, which was palpable throughout the event space. Each dealer seemed to feel that they were about to witness a gold rush in unmanned technology making them rich while making the rest of us... well, probably making us a lot more nervous.

Balsa wood and glue mishaps notwithstanding, many of the inventions on display may look like they're out of a sci–fi movie, but some are coming to a police department, mall, tabloid website, hospital, and evil villain lair near you. Heads up!

By Arthur Holland Michel

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drones Faa Fast Company Military Robots Surveillance