I started thinking about the future of drones over the summer. I read a Wired feature, in which then-editor in chief, Chris Anderson, wrote about industrial/corporate uses of drones:
The film industry is already full of remotely piloted copters serving as camera platforms, with a longer reach than booms as well as cheaper and safer operations than manned helicopters. Some farmers now use drones for crop management, creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution. And there are countless scientific uses for drones, from watching algal blooms in the ocean to low-altitude measurement of the solar reflectivity of the Amazon rain forest.
And his role in developing the consumer/hobbyist market:
All told, there are probably around 1,000 new personal drones that take to the sky every month (3D Robotics, a company I cofounded, is shipping more than 100 ArduPilot Megas a week); that figure rivals the drone sales of the world’s top aerospace companies (in units, of course, not dollars). And the personal drone industry is growing much faster.
The expanding do-it-yourself drone market has a garage–to-the-masses, entrepreneurial-breakthrough, buzz to it. I turned into a believer. And, I'm not the only one. Anderson left Wired to run the company he cofounded, 3D Robotics, full-time. They have already raised $5 million from investors, who are equally excited.
3D Robotics is based in San Diego with employees in both California and Tijuana. Like the company, the border represents a new frontier for drones.
Drones are great for film and science, but they are perfect for surveillance. As we've reported, many officials across the border realize this.
The drones are credited with leading to the arrests of more than 62,000 illegal immigrants, nearly 2,000 smugglers and more than 800,000 pounds of drugs, all in 2010, the latest available count.
A Homeland Security Inspector General report in May cited it for poor planning and oversight. Drones could be flying more than 10,000 hours a year, the report says, but so far they’ve been put to use for only 4,000.
And a lot of money in Washington is pouring into the technology.
There’s a “drone caucus” (Unmanned Systems Caucus) in Washington. Twenty-one members of the drone caucus are from border states.
General Atomics, a San Diego company, supplies and maintains the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s ten Predator drones.
In the last two election cycles, General Atomics’ PAC has given more than $140,000 to drone caucus members in border state
The Border Patrol has flown Predator B planes over the border. The drones cost a pretty penny: around $18 million each. But, Anderson has found success in bringing the technology to the consumer. 3D Robotics allows the masses to adapt and reinvent wartime technology.
And just like the personal computer, drones can be used in myriad of ways, by a diverse set of people, for a diverse set of reasons.
3D Robotics is the birthplace of the consumer market of drone technology. In a few years it might be ground zero for the cat-and-mouse game of border surveillance. At some point the technology will most definitely be appropriated by drug traffickers for smuggling and surveillance. The question is, how soon?