The Dawn of the Flying Smartphone

In all practicality, the next wave of drones will be airborne smartphones.

Dec 15 2014, 4:50pm

A nanodrone next to an iPhone 5. Image: ​Nanodrone

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, journalist, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.

Over the next decade, we'll see the rise of lightweight drones that fit in your pocket. In all practicality, they will be flying smartphones. I call them that because some manufactures believe drones might actually replace smartphones as the key communication device in the world. And those manufacturers plan to outfit drones with far more than camera capabilities. 

That sounds pretty good to me. I would like my smartphone and pal Siri to be airborne, so they can follow my daughter to school, see if the mail has arrived yet, and do a surf check for me so I don't have to leave my house. Frankly, it's not difficult to imagine myriad reasons a flying smartphone would be beneficial.

However, there are probably many reasons to be cautious, too. Will jealous people have personal drones follow and film their spouses and lovers? Will criminals use personal drones to pay for and pick up hard drugs? Will landlords spy on tenants doing questionable activities? These are challenging questions—many which involve violations of what some people consider essential personal freedoms.

Don't look to the government to offer much help. So far its take on the matter is slow, confused, ambiguous, and borderline anti-technology. Last month, Motherboard's Jason Koebler reported what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans for drone regulation in the United States: "an early draft of the long-awaited drone rules is extremely restrictive... most importantly, in order to fly a drone commercially, you'll have to be a certified pilot of standard, manned aircraft." 

As Jason points out, that "distinction immediately makes drones for the rich. It will instantly kill hundreds of small businesses that have thus far not had any sort of safety run-ins. It turns 'drone pilot' into something that only large corporations can afford to hire and something that only rich people can afford to become."

Jason is right. However, I'm hopeful that eventually the FAA will come to see superlight, personal drones as something different than larger, heavier drones. Perhaps size, weight, and how high a drone flies might be the key to giving them more freedom. Perhaps as drone companies gain ground, their lobbyists will be able to pressure the administration to change the rules, or Congress to pass drone-friendlier laws. Maybe drones that are similar in size to a smartphone, weigh less than a pound, and don't fly above 50 feet can be treated in an entirely differently class.

I'm encouraged by a recent BBC report that discusses a team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, who are working on small personal drones made for the urban environment: "The team believes that the lightweight nature of their miniature drones makes them safer for use in populated areas than the bigger models. So likely, the restrictions the FAA puts into effect will be changed once smaller drones become widely available."

DJI Drone. Image: ​Wikimedia

A personal drone that is similar to a smartphone could help equalize the difference between rich and poor in the world. So far, mostly the rich and famous have been able to have assistants, fitness trainers, and personal security details. But coming soon, everyone might taste the good life thanks to personal drones. Non-drone smartphones are ​currently owned by billions of people—and more people own cell phones than have access to running water, by some counts. This means that if personal drones could drop in cost to match smartphones' price point, much of humanity may have the perfect assistant ready to do our bidding when commanded by voice. 

Basic hologram imaging is already here, and perhaps a drone will project images of enthusiastic workout instructors. Or help you kick that smoking habit by being that annoying voice behind your shoulder shouting: "Put that cigarette down!" I know I could a use a drone at times to keep me from that second bowl of ice cream late at night. It might do wonders for democracy and proper government behavior too—having a personal drone filming police officers could help ensure he or she stays and courteous and professional.

Of course, such drone actions will inevitably bring about endless controversy. Where is the line of privacy, trust, and safety in the 21st Century, where everything is caught on film, where facial recognition can be determined from far overhead, and where personal drones can be made to carry small weapons or deliver drugs? 

personal drones that act like smartphones will likely become incredibly popular in the coming years—if governments around the world allow them to.

Additionally, will there be drone-free areas in public, or will the Super Bowl be an event captured by 25,000 personal drones hovering above the field and its players? What about drones at Burning Man? Or giant political rallies? Will demonstrators send their drones en masse to make a point? Imagine what a fundamentalist mega-church congregation could do if they showed up at a Planned Parenthood's and ordered a mass personal drone demonstration with their devices (and telescopic cameras) hovering above already stressed patients trying to get in the front door.

While I mostly advocate for ubiquitous personal drone use, I understand that few other technologies can create such a conundrum of issues in privacy and safety. And those issues must be dealt with, by all parties: the companies that create them, the government, and the public that will use them.

One fact to remember as we ponder this brave future is the historical use of closed-circuit television (CCTV). Reports show that when cameras are present, crime is generally reduced. It's likely that a plethora of personal drone use would further this trend. On the other hand, annoyance and stress caused from over-drone exposure might skyrocket.

To lessen this, it's likely some companies will create software that squelches out people's faces who have not openly given permission to be viewed or filmed in public. Perhaps some sort of national "I don't want to be filmed by drones" declaration might be instituted where people can sign up their preference. After all, Facebook and other social media have some powerful privacy controls regarding others viewing and interacting with them. A "block" feature is one of my favorite controls on social media.

It's still tricky, though. If you had a couple million personal drones flying around a city with their cameras on, video surveillance would be practically ubiquitous. It might be hard to block everyone or have oneself squelched out. Imagine the faces at a train station, or a frat party, or even just a Starbucks. But then again, maybe commercial outlets and stores will outlaw drone use entirely. After all, I'm writing this article in a Peet's Coffee, and I don't want someone reading my stuff before it's out.

Whatever happens, personal drones that act like smartphones will likely become incredibly popular in the coming years—if governments around the world allow them to. And surely some will, if nothing more then to bring in taxes from the companies making them. We all want that genie in the magic lamp that grants us wishes and power. A flying smartphone is getting pretty close to being just that.