Drones' reputation is a bit...iffy these days. They've grounded planes, hampered emergency workers, and landed on the White House lawn. One dude even grabbed his shotgun and blasted a drone out of the sky.
But while the bad (and highly interesting) incidents understandably make the headlines, the positive potential for drones so outweighs the negative that we're never going back. The genie's out of the bottle. The toothpaste out of the tube. Horse, barn. You live in a post-drone world, so you might as well understand the good they can do and how you can benefit from them as an investor.
One area with great potential that doesn't seem to get enough attention is traffic: How will drones interact with cars in the future, especially as we motor toward a self-driving reality? At this year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, I chatted with a drone expert from Detroit Aircraft Corporation about how these eyes in the skies will one day help us earthbound motorists avoid accidents and save money.
Asking what drones can do for the connected car seems like an odd question. What could they possibly have to do with each other? Todd Sedlak of the Detroit Aircraft Corporation knows what all industry insiders know: Taking decisions out of the driver's hands -- as self-driving cars will do -- will be far safer and save thousands of lives each month. Sensors built into the cars will be a large part of it, but drones can be another sensor in the sky, communicating with the vehicles.
Todd Sedlak: "But what if instead of a sensor on the car, seeing something in front of it and then reacting to it, what if there was a scout that was up ahead that could say, 'Hey, there's a car on the shoulder,' before the car even got within sensor range? Let's come back to those potholes. What if I could take a small aircraft that could zip up and down the highways and using photogrammetry characterize the location, depth, and size of every pothole in the road twice a day? I could take limited resources against an unlimited problem and deploy them more effectively.
Communications -- car-to-car communications -- currently relies on terrestrial infrastructure. I could use that as a link to create longer range and allow the cars to talk to each other beyond line of sight."
We're still talking about stuff that's far in the future, of course, but that's part of investing: understanding trends before they become trends. With so much other hype buzzing around drones, it can be hard to know what has a chance to succeed, and what doesn't.
Todd Sedlak: "The Taco-copter, the Amazon drone..."
Rex Moore: "Is that going to happen? Is that true, really?"
Todd Sedlak: "I think it is inevitable, but not in the way that we wish it would be. I don't really foresee a day where I make a phone call and a box of cookies shows up on my porch, because I'm not sure how economically viable that is. But what I do imagine is a UPS truck driving down the middle of my road, but instead of that guy getting out and stopping at every single house, there are literally drones on the roof of the vehicle that are grabbing packages and shuttling them to the porch, like a paper boy. They're just a very short flight. There's very low risk. Command and control is immediate. And imagine the efficiency of a UPS driver that never fell below 20 mph."
You'll also see drones heavily involved in public safety and humanitarian aid. Detroit Aircraft announced at South by Southwest it will be working with the Republic of Ghana on a system for the delivery of medical supplies, test samples, and related items.
Todd Sedlak: "So in Ghana what we're going to do is overcome real problems like lacking roads and eradicating disease, and deliver those small packages. So we're going to leverage that cookie-copter and instead we're going to deliver vaccines. We're going to pick up blood samples. We're going to reduce the possibility of infection, increase safety and efficiency, reduce costs, and hopefully start eradicating diseases instead of just dropping off tacos."
Tacos and humanitarian aid.... both worthy causes! Reporting from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, I'm Motley Fool analyst Rex Moore.