I went to see Noel Sharkey, Steven Hailes and Liam Young discussing drones this morning. The first topic broached was politics and military drones – which (rightly) is the dominant discussion in the media. This aside, here are the ideas I found most interesting.


Drones are like mobile phones

For me the most fertile territory was Liam Young’s imaginative discussion of the distant future (don’t say blue-sky thinking, don’t even let it cross your mind…). He talked us through Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today’s Electronic Counter Measures drone mesh network, which could be deployed to provide WiFi when a government has tried to sever the Internet connection, which they frequently do at times of civil instability.

He compared the potential ubiquity of drones to that of mobile phones, bits of tech so commonplace they become ephemeral and melt into the background. I found this the most striking thought of the whole talk, though I think I took it in a slightly different direction than intended.

Few technologies have penetrated further into the developing world than the mobile phone. Amazingly remote locations have mobile phone signal and a large user base. This must be in part because relatively little infrastructure is required.

Expanding the analogy, mobile phones masts are small ‘dots’ of infrastructure that function, to some extent, independently, where fixed phone connections require extensive ‘lines’ of infrastructure that break if any link in the chain breaks.

Perhaps drones stand in the same relation to roads as mobile phones do to fixed line connections. They are a resilient means of transportation that doesn’t require a large physical network to function. I’m not the first person to have this thought – a Google funded project called Matternet is actually playing out this idea. At the moment their tiny drones have a small payload, but this could be very different. The military already use drones with significant payloads to resupply remote bases.

Drones not in the city

Flowing from the previous point, why do we so often think of drones in the city? This must be the most hostile environment for them – obstacles, high population density, busy air space and an already established transport infrastructure. They might be of more utility in remote places. In the European alps its already quite common to have bulky building material delivered by helicopter.

What is it like when drones fight?

A final thought that caught my attention was a question from the audience – when will military drones start fighting each other? Noel Sharky suggested it will be a few years yet. This is because the ground-based pilots who fly drones are generally about 4 seconds behind what’s actually happening. A long time in combat – enough to make them rubbish in a dog fight. At the moment, they don’t have algorithms to autonomously engage each other, but in the future they might.

Sharky then mused about what might happen if two algorithms fight – and pointed out that then answer is very hard to predict. We have some experience of this. In 2010, high frequency trading algorithms – which are absolutely in combat with one another – went nuts. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 10% of it’s value. Nobody knows why – a bizarre interaction between trading robots spontaneously collapsed the market. Fortunately it recovered within minutes.

Similarly, a robot trader on Amazon tried to sell a book for $23 million dollars, after accidentally getting into a race with another algorithm.

If this can happen in the well defined world of online market places, we can only guess at what could happen in the literally explosive realm of aerial combat.

Drones are over-regulated

The example given was flying a drone over the Thames. This requires one to seek permission from two borough councils, the River Authority, Air Traffic control, the Civilian Aviation Authority and the police. This still only allows you to fly 500m and up to a 400ft ceiling. I presume as the utility of drones increases there will be pressure to relax this bureaucratic burden.

Drones don’t fly for long, yet

Another pragmatic fact that I didn’t know was that nearly all the small helicopter drones you see on YouTube have a flight time of around 10 minutes, which is perhaps near the lower limit of what’s useful.

Here is the cat on a Roomba, which also came up.



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