DroneNet: An Internet of flying robots

Jesse Brown muses on an unmanned ariel vehicle delivery service

I usually shy away from sci-fi forecasting and focus, instead, on technological miracles that exist today. By those standards, this item sort of qualifies: DroneNet. It’ll be as BIG as the Internet, according to the concept’s CAPS-happy founder, John Robb.

Robb is a pilot/military analyst/entrepreneur/author, and if you have a minute when you’re done reading this, read up on him, it’s fun. DroneNet is his term for, yes, an Internet of drones, or “a short-distance drone delivery service built on an open protocol.” The most interesting part of this idea is that, technically, it could exist today.

For a few hundred dollars, you can buy a quadroter drone (or for–I’m guessing–somewhat more, you can get a Japanese Ball Drone).

Quadrotors travel short distances relatively quickly and use little power. They can lift small loads and follow precise GPS directions. So why not use them to build a global delivery network?

Imagine limitless drones, co-ordinating with each other to move small packages around short distances. Once one drops a parcel off, the network sends it to the location of the nearest next pickup, or to the nearest charging dock, if needed. And all of this happens above our heads, across what Robb describes as “uncontrolled airspace.” Robb estimates the transport cost at “probably less than $0.25 per 10 mi. or so.”

If you already own a quadrotor, you can use it right now to deliver things on a peer-to-peer basis. Commercial use, however, seems to be forbidden, at least in the U.S., which is one reason why TacoCopter never got off the ground.

But DroneNet is different: “…millions of drones and millions of landing pads, interconnecting with each other according to simple rules and decentralized ownership.”

Like the Internet, DroneNet will rely on establishing a set of standards: standard parcel size and weight limits, standard drone specs and flight speeds, standard landing pads, standard networking protocols for drone co-ordination. Also like the Internet, DroneNet will start small, with a handful of enthusiasts paying a bit of money to add a node or two to the ever-growing network. Assumedly, the drone you release to DroneNet won’t be the drone that comes home. Pretty soon, lunch, documents, electronics, and whatever else, will be flying over our heads, 24-7.

Or maybe not.

Assuming the space over our heads is in fact “uncontrolled”, how long will it stay that way? Once an army of creepy toys begins freaking out the squares, how long until every square inch of airspace becomes regulated? The only reason the Internet was able to flourish as it did–growing too big to regulate by the time authorities wanted to regulate it–was because it’s invisible. The threat using the drones to transport drugs, or for terrorism, could be enough to squash DroneNet before it really takes off (sorry, sorry). Any drone delivery network we do eventually get will likely be highly regulated, police-monitored and corporate controlled, making it harder to scale and expensive to run.

But that’s quitter talk. I like DroneNet. I want tacos from the sky, and if someone makes it happen, I promise to cough up a few hundred bucks to add a drone to the fleet.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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