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The Invasion of Cities by Drones Is Underway

image credit: Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Llewellyn King

The future may be whirring above your head.

There is a push to commercialize drones that equals any gold rush. Hundreds of drone makers, drone service companies and drone management firms are creating new machines, divining new uses, and planning to increase the penetration of their devices or services in a marketplace that is burgeoning. Although dominated by DJI, the giant Chinese drone company with seven locations in the United States alone, there are hundreds of drone companies keen to get in on the action.

The drone takeover of the skies is not a thing of science fiction and Popular Mechanics anymore. It is real and it has begun. Soon the skies in cities will be getting as crowded as the highways of Washington and Los Angeles.

In the world of drones, the big struggle now is to increase the payloads. But the real value maybe in their ability to collect and process huge amounts of data – an essential part of the “smart cities” of the future. Former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said data is the new oil and drones are the new oil wells.

Drones and autonomous vehicles are destined to be integral to smart cities, with different entrants pursing different goals. Uber Eats wants dinners for families of four to be wafted aloft by drones. Amazon wants drones that can carry loads of various sizes and shapes. Google wants to own the control technology.

Everyone wants the data.

City managers, police departments, motor vehicle departments and first responders want data. Marketers and homebuilders want data about how we live and travel -- and even what we do when we are not between working and getting home.

Smart cities will run on data and drones will be part of the data-acquisition infrastructure. Morgan O’Brien, cofounder of Nextel Communications, Inc. and now president of Anterix, a company providing secure communications to utilities and others, tells me that data will be the foundation of smart cities.

“A smart city is ‘smart’ in the same way a smartphone is smart. Collecting and processing vast amounts of digital data in virtual real time, a smartphone collects a user to the internet for voice, texting, video and experiences of every sort,” O’Brien said, adding, “The smart city similarly will collect vast amounts of data and virtually simultaneously process that data to make the city safer, more livable, more green and more pleasant.”

This data will be collected from a myriad of sensors, including those on drones: the eyes in the sky.

Carl Berndtson, managing director of Confex Partners Ltd., a Concord, Mass.-based commercial conference organizer, expects 2,500 people at a drone conference which will be held on Oct. 28-30 in Las Vegas. Confex is part of the giant “Drone Week” early in December in Amsterdam, where 3,000 drone entrepreneurs and engineers are expected.

Of course, to keep all those goods-delivering, data-gathering, unmanned vehicles from crashing into each other, a sophisticated micro-air traffic control system will be needed -- something far beyond today’s macro system that keeps large aircraft safe. One company, AirMap of Santa Monica, Calif., claims to be well along the way in developing a control system, but there are others and governments will have the essential role. 

Drones will come in many sizes and shapes, from drone taxis whipping us about to worker-bee drones, like the ones already employed to inspect electric power lines and hammer nails into shingles on roofs.

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, was advised to go into plastics. Today he might be advised to go into drones.

The drone industry has taken off and is headed for where you live and work. Watch your head.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is


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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 29, 2019 2:28 pm GMT

Llewellyn, for those who don't want the invasion of privacy or the noise, there is an answer.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 30, 2019 11:56 am GMT

It's fascinating to see the natural reactions people have to the drones, many of them understandable and relatable. I'm curious, though, would you advocate for the same measures on satellites constantly taking photos above your land? Or the Google Streetview car driving down the street? As we get into these futuristic worlds predicted in certain parts by sci-fi dystopias, I'm constantly wondering where people's breaking point will be and whether in retrospect they'll actually wish it was earlier? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 30, 2019 2:55 pm GMT

"I'm constantly wondering where people's breaking point will be and whether in retrospect they'll actually wish it was earlier?"

Matt, people assign different priorities to personal privacy.  Already, I think many have recognized the impact it can have on their lives in inconvenience - becoming the target of spam emailers, for example. There's never a "breaking point" but a gradual realization - and by the time they realize they have to do something about it, it's already too late.

Many don't realize the potential impact it could have on society.

In May 2017 President Trump created the "Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity" when he discovered he had lost the popular vote. Without evidence, he believed millions of illegal immigrants had voted against him. When the belief was discredited and many states refused to turn over any information, he disbanded the commission only seven months later.

Students of history immediately recognized symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia common to past dictators. After Pinochet seized control of Chile in 1973, accomplices made extensive lists of his critics. The most vocal were brazenly murdered; thousands of others became desaparecidos - they disappeared, never to be seen again. Like many Americans today, many Chileans in 1973 never imagined such a thing was possible in their country.

Granted, there's only so much you can do to protect privacy. My net gun is ineffective at bringing down satellites, and Google StreetView isn't any more obtrusive than a pervert walking down the sidewalk looking in front windows. When drones are hovering outside their bedroom windows, however, some may realize that net gun would have come in handy - after it's too late.

Before it's too late to protect your privacy:

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 30, 2019 11:54 am GMT

Soon the skies in cities will be getting as crowded as the highways of Washington and Los Angeles.

Llewellyn, do you think this is hyperbolic or do you actually expect a constant hum of hundreds/thousands in the skies above given cities in short order? I would imagine if it got even close to this point then regulations and restrictions would start to step in (and you could certainly argue for jurisdictions exploring such today as a preventative measure)

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