Concept Art Hints at the Awesome Future of Drones

It's nice to stretch our imaginations once in a while to see what the future of robots might look like

4 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Concept Art Hints at the Awesome Future of Drones

Robotics, in the present, is a little bit frustrating. Heck, it's been frustrating for years, as the promise of robotics in the future is always incredibly awesome, while the present state of robotics (being constrained by inconvenient things like, you know, reality) is, well, not quite as incredibly awesome. This awesome of which we speak seems to be perpetually about five years away, and in order to not be depressed about this all the time, it's nice to stretch our imaginations once in a while through the unabashed reality-independence of artistic concepts, like these.

Just to be clear, these are not real drones. And they're not going to be real anytime soon at all, since they're, um, rather fanciful. Some of the aspects that the concepts hint at are possible, and maybe even soon, and after you check these concepts out, we'll talk a bit about what might be realistic, and what isn't.

The concepts were created by design firm Frog and posted on their blog by designer Cormac Eubanks. He writes: "This is our vision of a future where drones are not spies, weaponry or scary agents of evil; they can be trusted aids that assist humans tasked with doing some of the most dangerous work we know."

Here's the description for the image up top: The CyclodroneMaking solo bicycle rides safer:

The Cyclodrone is a flying beacon that can be configured to fly ahead of and behind a bicycle rider on roads to improve visibility and reduce the chances of being struck by a vehicle.  The drone is paired to the rider’s mobile phone and flies along a predetermined path programmed before the ride.  Sensors in the drone maintain a safe distance from the rider using a combination of an Infrared sensors and a WiFi connection strength.  The large beacon on top creates a highly visible warning to cars for safer solo outings on narrow one-lane roads and a camera records dynamic video of each ride.

And here are more concepts:

Snow CyclopsGuardian of the slopes:

The Snow Cyclops is a multi-purpose mountain Unmanned Arial Vehicle. It can be used to prevent avalanches by searching for potential risk zones near a ski resort or above a mountain road. It can carry explosives to trigger preventative avalanches without requiring a helicopter or a team of demolitions experts to reach inaccessible mountain passes that would inevitably trigger explosives manually. It can also be sent to an avalanche zone to perform search and rescue missions to find victims under the snow by using its thermal cameras and sending the information to the rescue team.  With an average survival time of under 20 minutes in snow, rapid-response is critical in saving lives. Lastly, it can be used to carry a rescue kit or a small package to lost hikers at a much lower cost than a helicopter.


FirestormSaving lives while keeping firemen out of harm's way:

The Firestorm is a fire rescue drone capable of scouting for trapped victims in dangerous and blocked off areas of a burning building before a rescue squad prepares for entry. Using a scout drone instead of blindly locating victims in a building fire reduces risk to the firemen. With its advanced array of sensors, Firestorm improves the likelihood of finding the victim. The equipped cameras - both traditional and thermal - allow the firemen to spot victims regardless of smoke density. Additionally, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide sensors detect dangerous gases at the scene. A short wave bullhorn enables communication from the ground team to the victim as a rescue squad works its way inside.  Bright LEDs can even be a beacon to disoriented victims to guide them on the safest path out of their treacherous environment.


Hummingbird and BeetleAutonomously farming where previously impossible:

A pair of autonomous agriculture vehicles designed to save lives by harvesting food more efficiently.   The Hummingbirds are autonomous flying drones that scout large areas of land using sensors that identify soil that is rich in nutrients in hard to reach terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible through traditional agricultural techniques. They can even fertilize the soil and map out the topography of the area to maximize the system’s productivity in selecting the type of crops to be planted and harvested. Once the crops are ripe, all terrain Beetle rovers are deployed to harvest and pack the produce into crates that are then transported to the nearest shipping center or warehouse by the Hummingbirds. The slick, organic design presents a friendlier appearance to the flying vehicles and the polished surface reflects the environment and helps keep the drone electronics from overheating in warm climates. 



Two things are going to make concepts like this viable: low cost, and high autonomy. Low cost is an inevitability to some extent, because drones are made of components that are rapidly getting cheaper thanks to crossover with many other industries. Autonomy is what's going to be tricky: we're not talking about just going from GPS coordinate to GPS coordinate without crashing into a tree , but rather actively integrating sensor data to make decisions and complete tasks for long-term full autonomy. 

Of the four concepts explored here, the first two are probably the most realistic in the short term. Leading and following a bicyclist (aka a set of moving GPS coordinates) along a road (which has been pre-mapped and is visually well-defined) is probably achievable, although the length of your bike ride (and perhaps the speed) is going to be significantly restricted by the drone's battery life, and whether or not cars would actually pay any attention to a flying warning robot isn't very certain.

The avalanche prevention drone is also reasonably straightforward, since all it has to do is carry (and deploy) payloads at specific points, a capability that already reliably exists. Search and rescue is a bit more difficult, not not exceptionally so, especially since the robot would be looking for thermal signatures in an environment comprised mainly of cold trees, cold rocks, and cold snow.

As for the other two, well, they're going to be a lot more work. The firefighting one is a great idea, but good luck sending a flying robot into an unmapped, smoke and flame-filled building. The agricultural drone is a great idea too, and soil and terrain mapping is a realistic near-term capability, but transporting stuff implies serious heavy-lift capability, which is an issue.

The next step, were I to speculate in a wanton manner, might be to come up with a reliable infrastructure that lets the drones take off, land, charge themselves, and (ideally) swap battery packs. Maybe hook it up to a solar panel or something too, while you're at it, because sure, why not?

Anyway, concepts are concepts, and they're not even prototypes, but it's still a lot of fun to think about where things might be headed.

[ Frog Design ] via [ DIY Drones ]

Images: Frog Design

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