Drones of the future will be smart (and maybe dangerous)

drones

Drones have been around for a few years now, but the truth is their usefulness largely has been limited to providing visual information to users in the form of photos and video captured by their onboard digital cameras.

That’s great if you’re a photographer, need to inspect an inaccessible piece of equipment or some farm acreage, or require mobile surveillance. Other than that, commercial drones are little more than fun (and expensive) high-tech toys — great for a cool selfie or a stunning aerial shot of the sunset, but not much more.

But future iterations will be far more versatile. As research firm McKinsey writes:

Drones that assist with operations are on the market, and this category is still growing. They complete tasks normally counted among the “three Ds”—dull, dirty, or dangerous, such as window washing. Drones have also found a place in entertainment and advertising, either pulling banners or putting on light shows.

Even more intriguing are the applications that are still under development or in their early stages, including drones equipped to emit radio or video signals or other forms of bandwidth for connectivity. These might be most useful for extending connectivity to remote areas or increasing it when demand surges. Drones for helping the movement of objects are being used on a small scale, with UAS delivery services expected to become available in the next five to ten years.

Even more intriguing than drones that can deliver things and enable connectivity are AI-enabled drones that can think and make decisions. As TNW contributor Andrei Tiburca writes, “GE subsidiary Avitas Systems has begun deploying drones to automate inspections of infrastructure, including pipelines, power lines and transportation systems. The AI-powered drones not only perform the surveillance more safely and efficiently, but their machine-learning technology can also instantly identify anomalies in the data.”

However, as Tiburca notes, there is a great potential downside to intelligent drones: “AI allows machines such as drones to make decisions and operate themselves on the behalf of their human controllers,” he says. “But when a machine gains the capacity to make decisions and ‘learn’ to function independently of humans, the potential benefits must be weighed against the possible harm that could befall entire societies.”

That’s especially true when you consider the intersection of AI and weaponized drones — a very scary prospect. While the combination of AI and machines has been raising alarms for years, the stakes are raised dramatically when that machine is a far-ranging and elusive flying robot. But in commercial applications, drones offer greater productivity, efficiency, and even fun.

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