You might be using your drone (or thinking about getting a drone) for epic vacation shots and ultra-romantic wedding videos, but you should be thinking bigger. What if, instead of taking pictures of you, your drone could help you monitor hundreds of acres of crops? What if it could photograph a building's flaws? And what if it could fix those flaws or water those crops as soon as it spotted them?
Just as self-driving cars could fundamentally rearchitect the way cities work, drones have a disruptive potential that's hard to overstate. They could change the way people and goods are transported (where we're going, we don't need roads!), eliminate some jobs and create others, and upend the way we think about distance. Drones could bring the internet to people who don't have it, deliver food and medicine to people who need it, and cast a watchful eye over anyone and everyone. Drones are even inspiring new sports! The nascent industry also provides a helpful reminder that regulators and inventors need to work together to make tech actually function, because there are some seriously scary downsides to a world where drones fill the sky.
We're at the very beginning of the drone revolution. The GoPro sticking off the bottom of your Phantom is an early version of something smarter, faster, and more thoughtful. Nobody quite knows yet how these miniature flying objects will integrate into our lives and skies. But self-driving vehicles will be in the sky long before they're commonplace on land—and what happens up there might be just as important.
The First Drones
A gizmo you might call a "drone" could actually fall into a couple of broad categories. One is a fully autonomous vehicle that flies without any human intervention at all. The other is more like a remote-control flier: A pilot is still in charge, but they're on the ground watching the drone, or in a room somewhere watching on a computer screen or through a pair of goggles. The two types involve different tech with different potentials, but they both count as drones. So we'll consider them, for the purposes of this guide, one and the same.
The general idea of drones has been around for more than a century. It's not a terribly novel concept, really: We've invented all these cool ways to fly around, but many of them are dangerous, so wouldn't it be great if humans didn't need to be sitting inside? You could point to Nikola Tesla's 1898 demonstration of "teleautomation," in which he remotely controlled a small boat over radio frequencies. Or to Charles Kettering, who built the "Kettering Bug," a World War I–era automated missile. Maybe it was the Queen Bee, the first reusable unmanned aerial vehicle, which the British military used in the 1930s for military target practice.
Wherever the idea began, drones were primarily a military project for decades. They were perfect surveillance tools, small and nimble enough to avoid detection while flying over enemy territory—and if they were detected and destroyed, the only cost was building another one. Later, soldiers began attaching bombs to the drones, allowing them to spot and destroy their target in a single move. The Predator drone, conceived in the 1990s and flown for millions of hours since then, has changed the way the US fights wars, both for better and for worse. It keeps US troops out of harm's way, but it also removes them from the in-the-moment decisions of war. Predator strikes can be incredibly precise, but they have killed hundreds of civilians. Drone warfare has been hotly debated since its inception—it's both a technological debate and a moral one, a sort of Trolley Problem for the skies.
On the consumer side, drones rose from a community of remote-control airplane fliers. In the late 2000s, some hobbyists figured out that their phones contained all the parts they needed for a kickass autopilot system, so they started rigging their phones to their planes and letting one pilot the other. Others bought the individual parts—an accelerometer for measuring movement, a gyroscope for directional orientation, a small processor to keep everything running—and built them straight into their devices. Since phones were improving so fast, these parts were becoming cheaper, better, and more battery-friendly. Pretty soon, anyone with basic coding knowledge and an afternoon to kill could buy a kit and build their very own drone.
Until a few years ago, though, nobody would have thought of drones as regular-person toys. The few buyable products still cost thousands of dollars, basically required a PhD to fly, and were used for things like filming blockbuster movies. Then, in 2010, Parrot showed up at CES and wowed the tech industry conference with the AR Drone. Parrot's quadcopter was controlled by an iPhone or iPod Touch, had cameras on the front and back for capturing awesome aerial footage, and transformed piloting a drone into something like an augmented-reality game. Most important, the AR Drone was easy to fly. Parrot had included all those smartphone sensors and used them to program the AR Drone to keep itself stable. You still had to direct the drone around, but it kept itself steady and aloft. That was huge.
It was in 2013 that consumer drones really began to—ahem—take off. That's when a company called Dà-Jiāng Innovations Science and Technology Co. Ltd, better known as DJI, introduced the Phantom. DJI had spent the previous few years building software it hoped would power lots of drones, but found the hardware wanting. So CEO Frank Wang and his team built their own: a white 2.2-pound quadcopter ready to fly right out of the box. The Phantom could perform clever preprogrammed stunts and camera tricks at the touch of a button, and even if you screwed up it was programmed to automatically fly back to you. DJI made the first drone that wasn't a toy or a tool. It was both and then some. And it immediately made DJI the most important name in drones.
Since the first Phantom, everything has changed and nothing has. Drone companies developed new and better drones with new and better features, new and better cameras, and new and better safety elements. Some built bigger drones that could carry better cameras or carry small packages; others built tiny drones, just toys really, that cost less than a Lightning cable. You can now buy a drone that works underwater or takes off from the back of a dune buggy. The smartphone boom continued to fuel drone innovation, and Intel and Qualcomm even began to work on drone-specific chips and software. Drones gained the ability to automatically avoid obstacles, to stay steady in strong winds, and to fly further and higher for longer. Right now you can get a drone with a 4K camera, 30 minutes of battery life, and a range of more than four miles, that can hover autonomously and avoid obstacles without your help, for about $1,000.
Guess who makes that drone: DJI. No matter how fast the market changes, DJI keeps winning. From the ridiculously powerful Matrice line to the more entry-level Spark, nobody makes better drones. And nobody sells more, either: DJI owns as much as 70 percent of the drone market. The list of its failed competitors continues to grow. 3D Robotics (which was founded by former WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson) and GoPro both made big entries into the drone business, and both failed to best DJI. Startups like Lily Robotics and Zano fell apart before even getting close. Even Parrot has mostly given up on drones. DJI's only real competitor, Yuneec, shares most of DJI's advantages: It's based near its factories and research facilities in China and can simply work faster and more effectively as a result.
The personal drone market is not smartphone-level huge—the FAA expects that 4.3 million hobbyist drones will be sold in 2020—but it's growing fast. And, ultimately, you and your kids taking epic videos in the park will only be a tiny slice of the pie. The skies may one day be filled with drones, but they'll mostly be flown for business reasons. Probably. Hard to say, right now. There's one big question left to answer before anyone can get busy inventing the future.
The Future of Drones
If you want to panic a drone enthusiast, just say these three words: Federal, Aviation, and Administration. The FAA's job is to regulate the skies, making sure everything that flies does so responsibly. Over the past few years, the agency has taken a keen interest in drones. It has slowly rolled out new regulations for how users can fly drones and what those drones can do. Ultimately, FAA rules and not the tech itself will decide what drones can accomplish.
For instance: Unmanned drones currently cannot weigh more than 55 pounds, which rules out drone taxis and huge cargo ships. Anything you're flying has to stay in your line of sight, and operators can only control one drone at a time, so companies won't be able to command their fleets from an office. You can only fly during the day, and never in congested or sensitive areas. (It's increasingly easy to get an exemption from the FAA, though, so your diapers-by-drone delivery service can skirt the rules in some cases.) These rules have led drone-curious companies to test their products outside the US, where regulations are either looser or nonexistent.
There's more regulation to come in the next several years, clarifying how and where drones can fly without causing trouble. For now, let's imagine the most wide-open regulatory scenario, in which drone operators can do just about anything they want. Almost immediately, drones will start to perform new tasks and capabilities. Ever since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos debuted Prime Air on 60 Minutes, anyone who delivers anything now wants to do it with drones. Amazon has been testing Prime Air by flying small packages into a few customers' yards in the UK, and is hoping for a broader rollout soon. Meanwhile, Domino's is dropping pizzas all over New Zealand and Zipline is bringing medicine to rural areas of Rwanda. UPS is looking into delivering your package by driving a truck into your neighborhood and then dispersing a fleet of (presumably brown, shorts-wearing) drones to each individual house. Then they’d fly back to the truck and charge up on the way to the next neighborhood. Drones can go into unreachable or unsafe areas to assess the situation or drop off necessary supplies. Almost anywhere humans cannot or simply don't want to go, a drone can zip over and look around.
It won't just be one drone, either. Researchers and engineers are already starting to think of drones as "swarms," looking at how birds and insects fly in order to see how dozens or hundreds of drones might be able to work in concert. They could carry more cargo or split up inspection work, generally acting as a many-headed whole instead of a bunch of individual flying objects. Already, drone masses have been used in a Super Bowl halftime show and to assess damage and plan repairs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
More prosaically, real estate companies are using drones to shoot promotional footage and filmmakers have used them to reinvent the chase scene. A flying camera provides a useful view for the media, for wedding videos, and more. It's a valuable inspection tool, too, able to quickly traverse a bridge or field looking for problems—and, pretty soon, the same drone will fix those problems too. Drone racing is growing fast, and even shows up on ESPN—it's an awesome spectator sport, because you get to watch from a first person perspective, as if you're flying yourself. Sadly, the more sci-fi use cases are a ways off, like drone taxis that can scoop you up from your front door.
It's worth mentioning that anti-drone products are coming along just as fast as drones themselves. You can already buy a drone that catches other drones, a shotgun shell that releases weights and nets to drag drones down, or even a radio-frequency jammer that prevents them from flying at all. Researchers have even enlisted falcons and other birds of prey to attack and disable drones. The debate over what to do about a drone's ability to violate people's privacy or invade their space has led to an arms race of sorts: the drone-makers are trying to make their products fly higher and faster, while others try to keep them grounded.
There are plenty of reasons for people to worry: a camera that flies will soon do more than just take pictures. The camera in your phone is learning to recognize your face, to enable augmented reality, even to see in the dark with thermal or infrared imaging. This is another place where regulation matters: drones can already spot an individual person from thousands of feet up, and the Big Brother implications are terrifying. Drones, like anything else, can be used for spying and tracking and all sorts of privacy violations. Still, those same cameras will enable better flight, more fun features and games, and new uses for drones beyond what anyone has even thought of. Every time your phone's camera gets a little smarter and sharper, so does your drone.