Unmanned Aerial Systems: Global Trends 2030 Part Deux

I have previously blogged about the late 2012 publication from the United States National Intelligence Council titled Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.  This is the fifth in a series of publications from the NIC examining future scenarios (the first was published in 1996/97) – but this is first time that the authors have included sections devoted to potentially disruptive future technologies.

Global Trends 2030 covers a wide range of topics and represents a framework for thinking about the future – identifying critical trends and the potential discontinuities or breaks that might occur.  The report identifies “megatrends” (those trends which will likely occur under any future scenario) and “game-changers” (representing variables which may significantly impact or change any of the future scenarios).   As before, I would highly suggest that you download and read a copy of this publication on your own – it represents the considered, critical thinking of hundreds, if not thousands, of the best analysts in the world – and if you have the inclination (and time!) to look at the source materials which can be found hosted on the National Intelligence Council’s website. It would seem that the study authors have identified many potentially disruptive future applications of technology into unmet market needs – this should be on every venture capitalist’s reading list!

In my earlier blog Global Trends 2030: Is 3D Printing the Catalyst for a Worldwide Industrial Revolution I gave a general overview of the Global Trends 2030 content (which I will not repeat here, but encourage you to read) and then concentrated on the future trends identified by the authors in advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.  Today I am going to review the sections of the report covering the potential future impacts of remote and autonomous vehicles, including unmanned aerial systems (a/k/a “drones”).

Within Game Changer #5 (the impact of New Technologies) – the authors discuss the potential impacts of various automation and advanced manufacturing technologies, concentrating on the transformation of robotics from an industrial process enhancer (and various military uses) to consumer (and health) markets, the use of remote or autonomous vehicles (including unmanned aerial systems), as well as the impact of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies (which I covered previously).  The authors first differentiate between remote vehicles (which are human operated and controlled, via telepresence or otherwise) versus autonomous vehicles (which are mobile platforms which can operate without any direct human control, relying on sensors and software to navigate, avoid obstacles, and perform their mission).

UAS Global Trends 2030

Chart from page Global Trends 2030, page 91.  The authors note that “Low-cost UAVs with cameras and other types of sensors could support wide-area geo-prospecting, support precision farming, or inspect remote power lines.”  Global Trends 2030, page 92.

The democratization of UAS products and platforms will no doubt bring substantial societal benefits – but as with all new and emerging technologies, there are areas for legitimate concern as well – ranging from the risks of UAS collisions (with other aerial systems, ground based assets, or people), privacy concerns (UAS overflights capturing all kinds of surveillance data, whether done by individuals or government agencies), to a UAS being used as a platform for terrorism, among others.  Consider the “what if” an individual or small team has access to disruptive UAS technologies that were formerly reserved to nation states (e.g cm accurate GPS UAS). For what Global Trends 2030 authors think on the negatives to this kind of “individual empowerment” – See Global Trends, pages 67-70.

I am personally excited about the tremendous potential that UAS platforms will provide for future generations – there are many near term potential opportunities. I am confident that the risks of UAS platforms can be managed and minimized through the smart application of technology, best practices and process, and an appropriate regulatory framework.  It is always important to recognize that UAS devices are not new – individual hobbyists and makers have been flying all types of devices (fixed wing, single rotor, multi-rotor) for many years.  What is new is the potential democratization of this technology through lower price points, broader access to technology (via crowd funding devices like Kickstarter), and the commercial successes of existing devices (like the Parrot AR Drone series).

While the current regulatory framework within the United States has limited the commercial application of UAS in the United States, it is only a matter of time (and very little time at that) before these types of sensor platforms are used and exploited within our borders (as they are used elsewhere in the world).  Precision agriculture (using a UAS for the precision localization/application of fertilizer, insecticide, water management, etc.), first responder/emergency/humanitarian use (deploy a UAS to hover on station immediately upon a 911 call, use in searches, fly and hover to avalanche beacons, etc.), and infrastructure maintenance and management (use a UAS to inspect large constructed assets such as bridges, pipe/power lines) are first among many in book.

I am particularly excited about the use of unmanned aerial systems as a sensor platform coupled with high precision cameras, z-depth cameras or even laser scanners in order to complete real time 3D scene reconstruction.  The combination of highly accurate GPS location with such sensor platforms would allow for the capture of highly accurate 3D representations of real world assets (constructed or otherwise) supporting all types of markets and functions (modeling, inspection, enterprise asset maintenance, etc.).