It seems like drones are flying around everywhere these days. The Pentagon's got them, of course, as do other militaries. Police want them. Journalists and photographers are using them.
Drones are proving useful for monitoring animals. An Australian state government is exploring the use of drones to prevent shark attacks. Google is funding drones to watch for rhino poachers. Scientists in China are using drones to monitor yak herds.
And, of course, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told 60 Minutes that his company wants to deliver packages using drones.
Amazon shows a video of its imagined drone delivery system in action. But because commercial drone use is mostly illegal in the U.S., the retailer had to film the demo abroad. (The FAA might legalize them by 2015.)
In fact, the legality of drone use for individuals is still up in the air, as it were.
Laws governing consumer drones are also in their infancy. Most states have debated drone laws, but so far only nine have passed laws restricting drone use for either citizens or police: Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Each of these laws is unique.
Meanwhile, consumer drones are generally available. The most popular model, called the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, is controlled with an Android or iOS device and costs about $300. A built-in camera beams a video feed to your phone as you fly it for live viewing or recording. (My son has one.)
Another intriguing product is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter, which is similar to the Parrot AR.Drone but higher-end. It has a higher-resolution camera that can be independently controlled using an Android or iOS app (You can stop, start and tilt the camera while the drone is airborne). The Phantom 2 Vision costs about $1,199.
Today's consumer drones don't seem like anything other than fancy remote-controlled helicopters -- the kind of thing that hobbyists have been flying for decades in parks and open fields. That's exactly what they are, with some notable exceptions. For example, when you stop controlling one of these drones, it continues to hover in place rather than dropping from the sky. And they can be controlled and potentially programmed via smartphone and tablet apps.
Tomorrow's consumer drones will be far more intelligent. In fact, they'll be flying robots.
The Vienna University of Technology is working on a drone called the SmartCopter, which is designed to be a self-navigating indoor drone. It's "brain" is an off-the-shelf Samsung Galaxy S II Android phone. Today, the SmartCopter can, for example, fly around indoors, navigating by "markers" placed throughout the building that the drone uses to create maps of where it can fly. Future versions will skip the markers, and the drone will create its own maps by recording the locations of walls and ceilings.