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For Christmas I want Santa to get me a …drone!

In fact, with pilotless drones now the coming thing in every walk of life, it won’t be long before Rudolph and the other reindeers are redundant and Father Christmas does his rounds by UAV (aka ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’) while sitting at home in the North Pole drinking eggnog.

You don’t know what I’m talking about? Well consider two stories this week. First, four people have just been arrested in the States after a remote-controlled helicopter was used to fly tobacco into Calhoun state prison in Georgia. Similar incidents in Quebec have led the Canadian prison officers' union to demand tighter security - presumably anti-aircraft guns?

How do these intrepid criminals get access to drones – robot radio-controlled, multi-rotor helicopters called Optocopters that can carry payloads of whatever you wish to smuggle including cigarettes, drugs, porn, and illicit mobile phones? Answer: you can shop for them online, like everything else. My ebay alert is offering me a heavy-duty Octocopter drone for a modest £4,899 plus £50 delivery charge - but they come in all sizes and prices.

This brings us to the second big drone story: Amazon, the book-to-everything internet retailer has just announced that it intends to use Octocopter drones to deliver packages directly to customers in the United States. True, the project still requires safety approvals, but Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos thinks that delivery-by-drone (christened “Prime Air”) will be available to customers in 4-5 years.

The UK media are treating the story as a bit of a joke, only because helicopter drones aren’t major busin3ess yet in the UK. But just wait till someone uses an Octocopter to deliver cannabis to Barlinnie.

In fact, the convergence of Octocopter drones and high definition video camera technology has already sparked a new market in cheap aerial photography and surveillance.  So don’t go nude sunbathing in your garden without keeping a close watch on the skies. (If you don’t believe me, just tap Octocopter into YouTube and enjoy.)

Video drones are being used for a multitude of things, from fossil hunting in Kenya by Louise Leakey to showing prospective students around university campuses in America. US farmers are into drones in a big way: a drone can tell a farmer which crops or ripe or where a fence needs to be mended. In Germany, drones are used to inspect the blades on wind turbines. Oil companies use them to monitor pipelines. 

But drones can also go spectacularly wrong. In April a helicopter drone filming sequences for The X Factor television show malfunctioned and dived into the Thames, taking expensive camera equipment with it. The story did not make the headlines because, of course, there were no humans on board.

The explosion in the drone market has made possible by the smartphone revolution, which drove down the price of the tiny electronic components needed to turn low-power remote control aircraft and helicopters into flying robots that navigate, communicate, and sense. While defence contractors were making expensive and powerful drones for the military, hobbyists have been fixing iPhones onto remote-controlled Optocopters. 

There is already a drone trade body in the States, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. The Association estimates that the commercial drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact over the next 10 years, assuming the FAA moves quickly to set workable operating regulations. That sounds very much like the aerial equivalent of the shale gas fracking boom.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US commercial aviation regulator, is predicting that as many as 7,500 private drones will be using America’s airspace within the next five years.

As a result, the FAA has already published safety rules for their operation. The FAA is treating privacy as important, as well as safety considerations. According to Michael Huerta, head of the FAA:

“Make no mistake about it, privacy is an extremely important issue and it is something that the public has a significant interest and concern over and we need to recognize as an industry that if we are going to take full advantage of the benefits that we are talking about for these technologies we need to be responsive to the public’s concerns about privacy”.

The point is not just having an Octocopter take photos of you naked in the back garden. It could be a thief casing your property to see if you are at home. Or for that matter, the media or police doing some surreptitious snooping. Already legislation has been introduced into the US Congress to require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before using drones to collect information – around 80 US police forces currently operate drones.

We are still in the early days of the drone revolution but not as early as all that. Listen to Chris Anderson, who left his job as editor of iconic Wired magazine last year to run 3D Robotics, a drone company he raised $5 million to start: “We’re past the Apple II, and we’re kind of closing in on the Mac”. 

Anderson’s reference is to the very early days of PCs.  The modest Apple II was the first mass-produced personal computer back in 1977.  But the PC did not mature into a mass market product until the Mac emerged seven years later. Commercial drones have left the stage of being manufactured in garages. They are no longer even the stuff of hobbyists. 

A new industry has been born. It may take a decade, but expect your mobile phone to beep telling you to expect a drone delivery. Even Santa could get in on the act.