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August 19, 2013

Disruption by Drone

Posted by Dr. Srinivas Padmanabhuni (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:02 AM


Vijay Kumar: Robots that fly ... and cooperate [Source:TEDtalksDirector http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ErEBkj_3PY]

Certain financial services firms in the United States are now using aerial cameras to snap photographs of the license plates of debtors' automobiles. Civil rights advocates are arguing that doing so is an infringement of privacy. The debt collectors, on the other hand, claim there's nothing private about driving your car around in public.

However that issue plays out, one thing is certain: Companies are using technology in innovative ways to engage and track consumers. A computing platform that's going to get hotter in the coming years is drone technology, or so-called flyable computing. Like many pieces of technology in the consumer world, drones came out of the military sector. (Another great piece of military tech is the night vision screen installed on some luxury cars. Auto experts reckon night vision has saved the lives of thousands of motorists in areas that are heavily populated by deer.)

Transcending its military uses, the drone is now helping to beef up civilian security. At the recently held G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, unmanned surveillance drones assisted an 8000-strong police force by keeping a watch on protest marches as well as monitoring possible terrorist threats.

Private companies and municipalities alike are utilizing civilian drones to gather all sorts of information. Take geology and topography. This month we're hearing about thousands of acres of wildfires raging across the American west. Drones used by fire departments can find evacuation routes as well as places within remote mountain ranges where they can draw lines in the sand in attempts to stop the infernos. The press is eager to stretch the limits of drone technology as well. Instead of "imbedding" civilian reporters in extremely dangerous military campaigns, a television news outlet can send an unmanned aircraft over hostile territory to collect riveting images of warfare.

The drone itself isn't all that high-tech. They're not unlike the light, propeller-driven craft that the Wright brothers were flying in North Carolina circa 1904. But what is technologically noteworthy are the Big Data and cloud methods of storing vast amounts of video images and analyzing them at lightning-fast speeds.

The issue for companies and municipalities is that although they're equipped with these new computing platforms, they're not able to utilize them to their fullest advantage. That's because they collect so much information. Enterprises are just now figuring out the most efficient ways to parse it down to be useful.

Critics say it's a scary technology because of privacy issues. But how is having an entity take a snapshot of you walking down the street from a drone different from a photo on a smart phone? If anything, drones are a lot more apparent and transparent in how they go about collecting information. Contrast that with mobile ad technology: Companies collect information as to your retailing tastes while you make online purchases. Few consumers know the extent to which their habits translate into targeted ads and promotions.

Drones offer exciting opportunities for a wide array of organizations. Can you imagine a retailer guiding motorists to its stores by the shortest, traffic-free routes? I wouldn't be surprised if a large chain is already thinking about buying a drone for each of its retail regions. The chain could program each drone to detect whatever kind of information is most appropriate for each region. Motorists in a congested Indian city might want more direct routes. Drones can also feed vital weather updates to motorists. Wouldn't it be interesting if a store recommended staying home and shopping online instead of making a potential dangerous trip in the midst of a large snowstorm?

What's also fascinating about drones is how well they're connecting to other platforms. Besides the aforementioned synergies with driveables, drones can interpret and feed updates to smartphones and even wearables. It's amazing how the right technology can distill thousands of square kilometers onto a pair of connected eyeglasses. Talk about analyzing an entire landscape from your spectacles or wristwatch.

If all this seems like pie in the sky, then consider how the concept of telecommuting would have struck the employees of a big company even one generation ago. People spent a significant part of their careers commuting to and from their workplace. "Face time" with colleagues was an integral part of office life. Nowadays enterprises judge work differently. It's more about the completion of a project on time and under budget than it is about face time and chatting around the water cooler.

So it is with drone. The cheaper it becomes to store and analyze large troves of information, the more attractive drones will become to private enterprises. Their popularity will also help drive down the cost of the actual bird. Nobody ever said military technology is cheap when it first enters the civilian markets. Soon, however, the sky will be the limit when it comes to this new computing platform.

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