It Came From Above: Why Copters Are The Next Big Thing In Robotics

They can deliver your laundry. Entertain your kids. Send you a pizza. Or save your life. They’re quadcopter drones, and they’re getting people excited about robotics again.

Powered by four synchronized rotors, they’re like high-tech RC helicopters that users can hack and customize in a number of ways.  Though almost always manually operated, they're able to make our lives easier by doing things in the place of humans. The same technology that has transformed warfare is now being used at home to work for and amuse us.

Long popular with hobbyists, quadcopter drones are enjoying a consumer renaissance because they’re more affordable and accessible than ever before. The $480 DJI Phantom, made in China, now comes fully built, eliminating the complex assembly required by earlier models. The Federal Aviation Administration is also relaxing regulations on consumer drones, paving the way for regular people to legally use them in a variety of new ways.

With a little imagination and occasionally some funding, companies and hobbyists alike have found dozens of applications for these unmanned aerials. Here are three ways quadcopter drones are flying consumers into the future—or attempting to, at least. 

Delivery Services (Or Not)

The most noticeable—and gimmicky—application, delivery service, promises to send food and goods hurtling toward your door. Problem is, it's having trouble getting off the ground.

In Philadelphia, a dry cleaner armed with a DJI Phantom delivers free dry cleaning to one customer a month, buzzing disembodied shirts overhead (though within visual range of the copter operator). A book rental company in Australia company plans to deliver textbooks to college students via drone. A UK restaurant named Yo! Sushi uses drones remote-controlled by waitstaff to deliver burgers precariously to customers’ tables. Dominoes is testing pizza delivery by drone.

Watching these burdened quadcopters dip and dive perilously through the air, you might get the idea that drone delivery isn’t really useful yet. And you'd be right—unless, that is, you’re someone looking for attention.

Wired, for instance, reported that one of the most highly publicized drone-powered food delivery sites, Tacocopter, was a hoax in March after speaking with an alleged cofounder. In September, a second alleged founder announced an alleged tell all, then canceled it. In October, the mystery—or practical joke—took yet another turn when the alleged co-founder hinted at funding from Taco Bell. What's really going on? Nobody knows for sure.

Even without the drama, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of a company claiming to make a business out of a technology that isn't technically legal yet. In early 2012, Congress told the FAA to write regulations commercial drones by 2015. When that happens, businesses will have clear guidelines for manufacturing, operating, and selling drones. But until then, FAA restrictions on quadcopter piloting are very strict. For example, it's currently not legal to operate a copter "outside of line of sight." (Not that that's stopped pilots from skirting the rules by using video screens—the better to fly beyond the naked eye's line of sight.)

Plus, with all eyes on murderous military drones, many have concerns about what a drone-saturated airspace might mean for civilian safety. Since the DJI Phantom comes with an aerial camera, there's already video of several injuries.

Health and Safety

On the other hand, some pioneer applications for quadcopters suggest that the technology could also be an effective way to save lives. One German nonprofit, for instance, has released a concept for Defikopter, a copter that’s been modded to carry a defibrillator and parachute it down to heart attack victims. The drone, which can travel up to 43 miles an hour, could be useful for providing quick assistance to heart attack victims wherever they happen to be.

Less dramatic but equally important, drones could be used to monitor food safety in an era when it’s becoming less and less possible for humans to do so. Former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who has a new startup called 3D Robotics, thinks drone surveying could keep unnecessary chemicals out of our food supply.

“We spray fungicides and pesticides prophylactically,” he said at a conference. “Not because there's an infection, but because the cost of missing infection is the loss of crop. We've increased the chemicals in our environment and our food because we have a paucity of data.”

Anderson thinks “drones might be the future of food,” but certainly not when it comes to food delivery, a practice he called “incredibly stupid” due to safety issues. 

"We love drones for agriculture because there are no people there, but using drones for delivery in built-up areas around people might not be the best idea," he said.

Of course, Anderson’s plan will have to wait until 2015. Thanks to people even more safety conscious than himself, commercial drone sales are currently banned in the U.S. until the FAA passes its new regulations. Under current laws it's legal for Anderson to pilot drones over farmland himself (provided he stays away from airports and below 400 feet), but the moment he starts selling them, he'd be breaking the law. The 2015 legislation is supposed to lighten that restriction considerably. 

Toys and Hacks

Though commercial use is highly restricted around the world and consumer use is currently more gimmicky than effective, one area quadcopters have unquestionably galvanized is that of entertainment and play. 

As Charles Forman, founder of the former game-app maker OMGPop, wrote of his copter hobby

Currently, it seems that there are two raging nerd camps: 3d printing, and multirotor copters. Currently, both are almost functionally useless. I’ve never seen anything 3d printed worth a god damn, and there isn’t enough aerial photography demand in the world to support the hordes of nerds building copters. I can’t imagine a real use for quadcopters, but f*ck man, they are super f*cking cool.

Some of the most creative uses for quadcopters have no practical application at all. Like this hilarious Halloween hack, where a quadcopter enthusiast terrifies the neighborhood children with a remote controlled, flying “ghost.”

Then there’s the guy who programmed his quadcopter to respond to commands from Google Glass.

And of course, a solution for the worried parents of an independent son—hack a drone to follow him to the bus stop and take video to ensure that he’s safe. How that’s less embarrassing than walking with your parents, we’ll never know.

While we won’t see commercial applications in the U.S. until 2015, I have a feeling hobby hacks will keep us perfectly entertained until then.

Photo by Carston Frenzl

Edit: This article has been updated to reflect that it was an RC helicopter, not a quadcopter, that caused of a Brooklyn teen's death.