Last month, i was really delighted to take part in the Bluedot Microdot event in central Manchester at which I spoke about my forthcoming book, DRONES: The Brilliant, The Bad, and The Beautiful, to be published by Emerald in 2020. It was a fantastic vibe at the event, feeling very much like a mini Bluedot. Here’s a sneak peak into some of the content from the book
With over 35,000 views, this video is my most watched on YouTube, but aside from being an amazing display, what was especially beautiful was the fact that Intel made its show a daily feature within the Olympic park, taking place after the medals ceremonies.
In so doing, it may have achieved another Olympic first, by making part of the Opening Ceremony freely available to anyone who happened to be in the park.
This week, the BBC published a piece about the Hermes delivery service using robots to make ground-based deliveries. Here's a few things I said about it, along with some additional comments in a piece for Medium.
Of the many technologies to have captured our imaginations over the last five years, there have been few with such lofty aspirations as drones. These high-tech flying machines have opened up new cultural pastimes which bring together hobbyist enthusiasm and a simple human curiosity to take to the skies.
In 2015, one of the largest commercial drone developers, DJI, was valued to be worth over US$10billion, while major media companies like Facebook and Google have been quietly acquiring drone manufacturers to further their aspirations of reaching the remaining world’s offline population by using high altitude drones to beam down data through lasers, giving those more remote communities a means of getting online.
But what are the big five applications that explain the proliferation of drones over this period, or which signal important contributions to our society?
The great thing about drones is that they are small, fast, agile, self-guiding, and can carry things. Ever since Amazon’s first patent award for a drone delivery system in April 2015, we have seen new designs emerge and new applications imagined, including the company’s latest aspiration to create a blimp style drone carrier which will be able to deploy fleets of drones directly from the sky. Meanwhile companies like Flirtey have received approval for commercial drone delivery flights, for items ranging from Pizza delivery to bottled water, emergency food and first aid kits.
Other delivery designs have included life-ring drones, blood-delivery drones, and defibrillator “ambulance” drones – the prototypes of which show great success and clarity of use.
In 2015, the world’s first Drone Film festival took place in New York, shortly followed by a number of others around the world. In the same year, the Drones for Good prize launched in Dubai, creating an annual US$1m prize for inventors to come up with some of the best drone applications. Finalists ranged from drones designed to map biodiversity, to a search and rescue drone which was its inaugural international winner.
Award winning filmmaker Liam Young created the first film shot entirely by drones, called In the Robot Skies. Artists are even putting 360 cameras onto drones and turning them into virtual reality perspectives, as in the case of award-winning Marshmallow Laser Feast’s In the Eyes of the Animal, which uses drones, LIDAR scanning, and VR to give a completely new perspective on the world.
The United Arab Emirates created the world’s first Grand Prix Drone Racing event, with British teen Luke Banister winning its inaugural event in 2016 with a first prize pot of US$250,000. Since then an entire community of drone races have been popping up around the world, with the first professional race taking place in the UK at the 02 Arena in 2017.
Drones also have the extraordinary capacity to occupy parts of our natural world that no other object can. These machines have been seized upon by environmental scientists to help us understand the natural world in ways that have never been possible before. For instance, primate biologist Serge Wich has been monitoring apes from above using a range of drone systems, while Neil Entwistle, of Salford University’s School of Environment and Life Sciences, has been mapping out flooding patterns in the UK to more effectively help us figure out how to protect ourselves against catastrophic weather.
Journalists have also been quick off the mark to use drones. The Knight News Foundation project is developing a Drone Journalism operations manual to help reporters fly ethically and safely. And in countries where there is tight media control there is particular value in having drones to access places which have decreed off limits. In Turkey, for example, an activist allegedly had his drone shot down by police when he was trying to capture footage of demonstrations in Istanbul.
Among all these amazing applications, there is also a lot of hype about where drones will take us. A lot is still very much in flux. Rules keep changing, freedoms to fly are being curbed in various countries, such as Spain, and there remains a concern about safety and how best to govern accountability. What’s more, it’s crucial to keep an eye on the links between the military and the consumer sector, as the overlaps are emerging – economically and politically.
There is already a push back against a world where we are surrounded by drones, such as the project No Fly Zone which lets US citizens try to protect the air space around their homes from drone intrusion. We also have a massive design problem in trying to actually figure out what a highway in the sky might look like.
But one thing is clear, the investment capital is there to sustain these applications for a long time to come and there is no sign of the number of applications diminishing so there’s still a great deal of change to expect ahead.
My second appearance at Sheffield Documentary Film Festival this year was part of a discussion about National Bird, a film dealing with the complexities of drone warfare. It takes the perspective of thee drone operators, who put themselves out on a limb by talking about their experience and concerns about such work.
It was a complex and far reaching discussion in which I covered the relationship between military and civilian drone applications, the idea that losing the human from the field of combat may diminish some aspect of our capacity to take moral responsibility for destruction brought by drones. Other philosophers have made this case and the views of protagonist Lisa Ling, who was with us, made it all the more apparent.
This week, I produced a day long research event for the University of Salford, bringing together interested academics and professional services to talk about how we might use drones within our work. It drew interest from a range of schools across the university and was a really great deep dive into the subject, bringing external expertise - such as world-leading drone conservationist Prof Serge Wich. It was a fantastic day with some excellent presentations.
Another big delivery for me within the Manchester Science Festival was the Drone Expo at the Museum of Science and Industry, which took place over the opening weekend of the festival. It was produced in association with my Josh Award for Science Communication and we created a large flying space at MOSI with professional pilots and STEM volunteers to show the public what's happening with this amazing techology.
This week, I received a report from Lord Haskell, detailing the House of Lords debate of 8th September, in which he kindly mentioned my work on drones. This is an important citation for Project Daedalus and great to have made a link there for NESTA. Here's the report, crucial reading for all UAV/drone users.
Our online toolkit is also online now! Here's a link to get started on learning about drones.
AND festival went to Grizedale forest this year, a return after 5 years. We delivered a number of drone activities over the weekend, including a networking event for drone enthusiasts and some flying experiences for beginners and experts. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and had some great people come along and learn.
This week, I was privileged to speak at the University of Salford's London meet up. It was a unique event for me and incredibly humbling to see and speak to so many remarkable people who have come through the university, including a Lord who was involved with writing the House of Lords report on drones - the subject of my talk!
It was a great way to conclude an extraordinary first academic year at the university.
My first #SciFoo (Science Friends Of O'Reilly Media) event just came to a close and it was a marathon of crazy conversations with people doing remarkable things in science, art, and technology. Some of my highlights were a conversation with a paleontologist about using a probablistic approach to explaining why mammoths became extinct, chatting with the Pope's astronomer, and running two sessions in the programme, one on Drones, the other on Google Glass. Here's a glimpse from start to finish...
This week, I took part in a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival focused on the use of drones in every day life. I talked a lot about Project Daedalus and some new innovations, particularly high authority autonomous systems - essentially completely intelligent drones - while Gerry Corbert from the Civil Aviation Authority gave a run down of the rules and regulations surrounding application. He was quick to point out that the guidelines that surround UAVs were never designed for the very small UAVs which can now be picked up in toy stores or even the Apple store, but there were some key issues that seem unresolved. One of them relates to this video:
This example of a form of augmented reality glasses being used to give FPV perspective of the drone's camera is provocative because the CAA guidelines stipulate that flying with FPV goggles is actually not legal, since the pilot must always have visual line of sight (VLOS). However, these glasses offer transparency which permits VLOS, while locating the drone's camera feed within the glasses as well. So the question is, 'is this legal?'
This seems one of the future directions around the use of augmented reality devices with drones, making even more complicated the way in which the rules operate.
Last week, we ran a second event with people from arts organizations, talking about Project Daedalus. As for London, we showed them a range of applications, discussed all kinds of issues surrounding drone use, even gave them an overview of Amazon's new delivery drone patent, awarded in just April 2015. Many of the things we played are located in this Project YouTube playlist, which covers some of the things that are informing what we are doing.
In the first of our Project Daedalus events with arts organizations, we all went over to the Pleasance in London to offer some demos, talks, and sandpit style discussion, thinking about how to use drones in creative contexts.
Attendees had a chance to fly some micro drones and a Parrot Bebop using the iPad control interface, while also hearing about 360 degree film making, design for virtual reality interfaces, including Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear, and generally think about how to interate a range of digital technologies around drones, to create immersive, compelling, and different audience experiences.
Project Daedalus is a Digital R&D for the Arts project, funded by Nesta, Arts Council England, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was born from a collaboraiton between myself, Abandon Normal Devices, and Marshmallow Laser Feast.
Yesterday, Anna Frew and I spent the afternoon testing out minidrones for some workshops we have on soon with the BBC, a disability group, a school, and some arts organization employees. Each of the workshops aims to provide a flight experience and an insight into some of the things that drones can be used for within an creative setting. Here's what we got upto...
Today's talk at #SportAccord went really well. It was the first time I'd used flight within a lecture and fortunately nobody got hurt. In actual fact, it was all very safe and I think it made much more real the way in which drone technology is becoming a part of the fabric of our lives.