Revolt of the Drones: From Radio Control to Ethereum Smart Contracts


Back In the 1980’s, Oscar-winning film director James Cameron predicted that by the year 2017 the Earth will be in ruins swarming with homicidal robots. Fortunately, this didn’t turn out to be true, at least for now. But what is actually going on with the robots today?

The fact is that robotization is gaining momentum fast. According to Roboforum, North American production sector has seen a record amount of robot workers this year. Only in the first six months of 2016 companies have purchased 14 500 new industry robots with the estimated total cost standing at $817m.

Notably, a sharp rise in use of robots is observed in food manufacturing and retail industry with number of the purchased machines going up 41% compared with last year.

One of the reasons for such a dramatic growth is the technological breakthrough in use of drones. A plethora of new projects and ideas is born each day with researchers predicting that in the near future the UAV’s would be doing a wide variety of tasks, ranging from pizza delivery to first-aid treatment in case of road-traffic accidents.

Actually, there are plenty examples of this already happening. Dutch company TRNDlabs has designed Pico Drone, a tiny drone which can help scientist in their exploration of hard-to-reach locations on the open terrain. Meanwhile researches from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich have successfully tested use of drones in building and construction operations. A couple of drones wove a bridge out of polyethylene fiber rope in an intricate dance. Some 120 meters of rope were used to bridge the 7.4-meter gap, neatly tying knots, links, and braiding. The drones could not have possibly functioned without the uniform steel scaffolding for anchors or the precision indoor tracking system absent which would have made them to not only make a mess, but crash and burn.

And of course, there are some bigger projects involving the drones. Earlier this year Google has been awarded a patent that outlines a system where drones would bring medical aid to people in distress. This system can be used by both government structures and public organizations. The drones can be customized depending on the type of emergency and can either be equipped with a standard medical kit or carry more complex devices such as defibrillators. The idea is that once an emergency call has been put through, a drone departs to the incident site delivering the first aid kit, medical devices and audio and video instructions.

At the same time, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of large-scale integration of drones. The biggest of them is arguably the risk of drones colliding with people or other aircrafts.

Amazon Inc. has offered a solution to this by patenting an active collision avoidance system for delivery drones.

Amazon’s engineers propose to equip the drones with multiple sensors including cameras capable of capturing multiple wavelengths of electromagnetic energy. These include infrared and visual, acoustic sensors and multispectral sensors for the detection of objects during the drone’s operation. This way a robot becomes an autonomous unit capable of comparing its flight plan to the trajectories of the detected objects. By updating its flight plan the drone minimizes or eliminates the likelihood of interaction with the detected objects.

Such a unique idea still brings about a number of other issues that will have to be solved at some point. Particularly, the cost of such a drone is still unknown so it remains to be seen whether its use would be economically feasible. Also, there are questions about the size and bearing capacity of the device.

Meanwhile, Russian developers from the Airalab team are taking a different approach. They have designed a smart contract system based on the Ethereum blockchain which potentially could evolve into a service providing mass use of drones. The UAV’s themselves will be operated independently and in a decentralized manner.

The system’s field tests took place in April 2016, later in August the project was presented at the Moscow Drone Expo Show. Lead developer Sergei Lonshakov showcased a scenario where a decentralized supervision drone network was created. Additionally, the developers demonstrated the process of a smart contract conclusion between a drone and a supervising robot without human intervention.

Unfortunately, so far the Airalab team hasn’t come up with any solution to a real-time prevention of collisions of drones with other aircrafts or obstacles.

Nevertheless, despite all the technical difficulties and regulation issues, mainstream use of drones looks just inevitable.