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Digital Friday >>> Rise of the Planet of the Drones

Picture Credit: Jonathan Lampel

Drones are defined as being an “unmanned” aerial vehicle which operates without any human pilots or passengers in the vehicle. The first ever commercially licensed drone which was used for non-military operations was invented and tested back in 2006. Less than a decade later, in 2015 the popularity of drones skyrocketed as people used it for recreational activities and photography, and more than a million were sold in the US alone.

With time as technological advancements progressed in both software and hardware, the application of drones started branching out from just recreational and photography purposes.

In San Diego, the defence start-up Shield AI has designed software which allows drones to fly themselves. This software (called Hivemind) lets drones “go inside buildings without GPS, without communications – these are jammed by adversaries – so it can scope out a building ahead of soldiers”, commented Brandon Tseng, Shield AI’s co-founder.

Using drones to keep soldiers safe on the battlefield is just the tip of the iceberg. Smart drones powered by AI have the potential to take automation as we know it to the next level. Drones will shortly start operating on their own without the constant guidance of a human pilot. Instead, it will be able to carry out routine tasks which are powered by its smart AI algorithms.

Aerobotics, a South African drone start-up, has developed a method to help citrus farmers in Florida save their crops from diseases. Drones are programmed to fly within a few feet of crops and collect microscopic images of the plants. This data is then later used to determine which plants are healthy and which need help. “We are using computer vision algorithms to detect that fruit, size that fruit... Then, based on production and training data, we project the size of that fruit growing over a season, and we calibrate that with different collections”, commented Stuart van der Veen, chief platform officer of the start-up.

Picture Credit: Peter Fazekas

Easy Aerial, a company based in Brooklyn, designed the “drone in a box” solution to help conserve and protect national forests. The drones can scan and monitor miles of forests for more than 24 hours at a time. This could become an essential tool not just against deforestation, but also poaching as rangers can identify and intercept any attempts to do so faster.

The potential that smart drones have is immeasurable. From delivering packages, to the police and firefighters using drones to respond to emergencies faster, AI powered drones can pave the way forward. Lorenz Meier, chief executive at Auterion, an open-source software platform for drones, commented that the drone market (which was already worth more than $13 billion last year) is on the verge of a revolution. “It’s a bit like computing … computers changed our lives once they started talking to each other. And how we use drones will fundamentally change once they start to be networked”, he commented.

The future of drones looks promising. However, when machines are made to make decisions by themselves with almost minimal human intervention, there is an inherent danger which arises as well. This problem arises with the weaponisation of drones and giving AI powered drones the decision to take a human life. Unfortunately, these weapons already exist and is used by militaries around the world. This brings up the wider discussion on how technology should be used ethically and carefully, especially when it comes to something as intelligent and unpredictable as AI, and how to best use it to benefit humans all around the world.

December 31st 2021 | 4:25 PM

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