Are Drones The Flying Personal Computers Of The 1980s?
Right now, the pace of transformation in the drone and mobile robotics industry is nothing short of thrilling. As different, broad technological trends mature—including cloud and edge computing, distributed data analytics, 5G+ networks, advanced AI/ML, open source and standards development and numerous software and hardware efficiencies—drones are steadily integrating the innovations. That has already improved the capacities drones have, the functions they can serve and their impact on users, businesses and governments. And much more is to come.
The future of drones and all autonomous mobile robotics, whether deployed in airspace, outer space, undersea or on land, will loosely follow the evolution of another now-ubiquitous piece of technology: the personal computer. Like PCs, the development of drones is leading us into a highly connected future. Let’s compare trajectories.
Where We’ve Been: A Standalone Experience
By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, early personal computers, built by the likes of IBM, Xerox, Apple, Commodore, Hewlett-Packard and others, hit a nascent consumer market, billed as devices for personal finance, word processing and hobby programming. They were standalone units with proprietary features that people bought because they were fun to use, had a “cool” factor and felt experimental. They were also very manual and slow. Data transfer happened on large floppy discs that gradually reduced in size and format. And buyers believed in their future integration.
About a decade ago, the first small uncrewed aerial vehicles directed at consumers hit the market. While drones were certainly not new to military and research organizations, these retail lightweight and remotely-piloted devices were cool, like the early PCs, and fun for buzzing a field and capturing images and video, which were saved on SD cards for a very manual transfer of collected data. The drones were personal, standalone devices and unconnected to anything but their own remote control unit. Many, of course, still are, and the SD card data transfer remains time-consuming and not at all scalable.