On the front page of today’s Wichita Eagle is a story about something that in my last post was intended as a joke. In my last post I fostered the notion of a flying fast-food feature, but found it wasn’t feasible. Pie In The Sky was just a dream. I also mentioned Silicon Valley’s 2011 TacoCopter.

Today’s Eagle story “Could An Unmanned Drone Deliver You A Quick Dinner?” says basically what I said a few weeks ago, although it provides examples I didn’t think of. The authors write, “Researchers at the Darwin Aerospace laboratory in San Francisco have designed the Burrito Bomber, the world’s first airborne Mexican food delivery system…” Technically it’s the second.

Hobbyists’ remote-controlled aircraft have been around for decades, but today’s drones are part of a new generation. They’re the juncture of robotics, flight technology, and information technology. They still require humans at the controls, but they increasingly use onboard computers for steering and execution of commands. Advances in computing allow ever-“smarter” and more autonomous drones, and advances in drones allow the ever-increasing expansion of the purview of the information revolution. They are a place where “meat-space” and “cyber-space” meet, connecting the abstract digital world with physical capabilities for real-world applications.  Drones are computerized tools, cameras and sometimes weapons.  As Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together, “we are shaped by our tools.  And now the computer, a machine on the border of becoming a mind, [is] changing and shaping us.”  She’s concerned with the way we’re increasingly communicating with screens instead of faces and using machines instead of interacting with people.  I think computerized, unmanned aerospace is beginning to have society-wide impacts.

Next door to Kansas, over at the University of Missouri, the journalism program is finding new uses for drones. It’s part of a growing trend. According to the Kansas City Star:

They’re not computer engineers or information technology experts. They’re future story-tellers learning how a cheap technology can enhance their reporting with a bird’s-eye view of a story.

The national media has zoomed in on the University of Missouri journalism drone class in recent weeks. Is this yet another dimension of the coming of the drones, the future tool of the celebrity-chasing paparazzi?

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In five years, experts predict, more than 10,000 drones will be working overhead for American businesses. Some say the number might soar as high as 30,000. That’s a lot of cameras staring down, some with infrared imaging, swiveling to see ever more.

Every day advancements are made in the technology. As the machines become more weather-proof, with longer battery life, lighter, smaller, even bug-sized, the list of possible uses — and concerns — grows.

The MPAA is lobbying Congress to allow use of drones in the US because, the Eagle says, “flight crews can eat up huge portions of movie budgets.” Most other nations don’t restrict domestic non-governmental drone use as the US does, though restrictions here are likely to loosen.

The opening scenes of the recent movie Skyfall were shot using a drone.  Drones have also found uses in agriculture, journalism, law enforcement, and warfare.

I think the increasing use of machines instead of humans for our business in the sky is an inevitability. Drones’ cheapness and safety are often cited. This goes for our business beyond the sky, too: NASA has for decades found immense savings in sending robotic probes into space instead of human missions. Our robots can explore Mars and outer space far more easily, safely, and cheaply than any human could. They can go where no man has gone before, or ever will go.

One drawback to this approach is that space probes don’t inspire us the way human space exploration does. It was stunning, awe-inspiring, and revolutionary when Man first walked on the Moon. For the general public, it was yawn-inducing when two years ago NASA landed its Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.

Unmanned space exploration is much less inspiring because it lacks the human element. It’s another facet of the disconnections enabled by modern technology that Sherry Turkle describes.

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