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Flying Robots

Compact unmanned aerial vehicles will perform many valuable jobs if ­aviation regulations allow them to operate ­commercially.

I don’t use the word “drone,” which originally referred to remotely piloted planes used for anti-aircraft target practice and is now closely associated with long-range surveillance and strike vehicles operated by the military (see “The World as Free-Fire Zone”). But I do envision wider use of aircraft with sensors, perception, and intelligence. I call them “flying robots.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles, as they can also be termed, are already being used for incredible things. Some Japanese farmers get help managing their rice paddies from UAVs that monitor crops and spray pesticides, while UAVs with cameras are used to track wildlife poachers in Africa. When I went kite-boarding in Utah recently, I saw hobbyists using UAVs to capture their experiences from a unique angle.

Unfortunately, though, we are still missing out on much of the potential of flying robots. All the current applications are governmental, hobby-related, or overseas, because the Federal Aviation Authority completely restricts the commercial use of UAVs in U.S. airspace. Happily, this is expected to change in 2015. I believe this change will cause an explosion in commercial applications of flying robots.

Just using flying robots as eyes in the sky will be incredibly valuable. Bridges, dams, and other civil infrastructure require periodic inspections, a mostly visual task that a small flying robot can perform much more quickly and cost-effectively than a person dangling on a rope. At a time when an estimated 17,000 U.S. bridges are behind in their scheduled inspections, UAVs could cut the dangerous backlog. Police will also benefit from using flying robots with cameras, allowing them to assess dangerous situations before intervening. Ground-based robots used in this way by U.S. military overseas have already saved the lives of service personnel and civilians.

These first applications will create a virtuous cycle of profits and investment that can support more advanced ideas. For example, flying robots could be used to transport documents and small parts efficiently within urban areas. In the longer term, these robots will be able to act more intelligently. They could swarm a litter-covered area and leave it pristine, or fly toward the sound of gunshots and throw themselves into the line of fire.

They could also have personal uses. Imagine a flying robot that meets you at the halfway point of a run or hike with cool water. Like a family dog, it might even play catch, watch the house, and show excitement when you return home from work.

Helen Greiner is chief executive officer and founder of Cyphy Works, a company developing flying robots for commercial use. Previously, she cofounded iRobot and served as its president and chairman.