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The Sky is not the Limit


Imagine heading to your car in the morning and, instead of sitting in traffic for an hour, you instead zip to work via a highway in the sky in a drone. That’s one future scenario presented in a new exhibit, “Drones: Is the Sky the Limit?” which opened May 10th at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum at Pier 86 in Manhattan.

Exhibits inside the 6,000 square foot space explore the usual definition of “drone” as either a remote control flying camera or an unmanned military machine. According to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), hobby drones in the U.S. will more than triple from 1.1 million in 2016 to more than 3.5 million in 2021, and the agency is processing an average of between 5,000-7,000 drone registrations a week. The FAA also projects the number of commercial drones will grow from less than half a million today to 1.6 million by 2021.

Visitors to the exhibit learn a brief history of “unmanned systems” such as hot air balloons from the 18th century to remote control cameras mounted on kits in the 19th century to the first remote control airplanes in the mid-20th century. Much of the exhibit, however, is devoted to current drone uses, including:

  • Fire/safety/rescue – flying and peering in where it is too dangerous for humans.
  • Hollywood – the ability to capture expansive overhead shots for movies and documentaries, electronic news gathering and VR presentations sans an expensive helicopter.
  • Delivery – not just Amazon, but medicinal and humanitarian aid to areas struck by natural disaster and unreachable by other means.
  • Nature – tracking agriculture for crop management, wildlife to track populations and other conservation efforts, and using a DJI Phantom 3 to explore the previously inaccessible Son Đoòng Cave in central Vietnam.
  • Entertainment – on display is the Volantis “flying” dress co-designed and worn by Lady Gaga in 2013.

There are also interactive exhibits including one that lets visitors virtually fly a drone. “This exhibition showcases the far-reaching impact of drones on countless human endeavors and gives visitors amazing insight into how far we have come and how this technology will shape the future,” explains Susan Marenoff-Zausner, president of the Intrepid Museum.

Drone Futures

The “Drones: Is the Sky the Limit?” exhibit

The most fascinating area of the exhibit is future drone use. On display, for instance, is a full-sized model of the Kairos autonomous “air taxi” being developed at Northwestern that you would order like an Uber via a smartphone programmed to fly you to your destination. Another display shows the concept Terrafugia TF-X, an enclosed and more fully developed version of the flying car backed by Facebook Co-founder Larry Page. An outfit called Imaginactive envisions a drone future filled with “drone tower” apartment buildings decked out with flying car landing pad balconies like on the Jetsons.

“Traveling in autonomous air vehicles may one day be as common as the automobile today,” predicts oneTerrafugia panel, ignoring the massive air traffic control issues that would be the result of such an air-filled future. More practical drone usage futures presented at the exhibit include:

  • Mosquito control drones
  • Supplying emergency cellular service
  • An automated pet sitter

Also covered in the exhibit are some sticky political and legal issues like the use of military drones for domestic surveillance, whether the FAA should be the sole decision maker about the use of drones over private property, and whether we’d be willing to ride in unmanned flying taxis if they were cheaper and faster than other standard transportation methods.

“Drones: Is the Sky the Limit?,” co-sponsored by drone maker DJI, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), along with public funds from New York state, will be open until December 3.

Stewart Wolpin

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