Slate: What the history of helicopters tells us about the future of drones

A thoughtful piece from Slate, pointing out that much of the fevered imagination about domestic drones (I'm as guilty of that as anyone) mirrors what was predicted about helicopters when they were introduced in the 1940s.

The only place where I would disagree with the author is in his conclusion, where he seems to fail to realize that because drones are unmanned, they are essentially computers in the sky and thus are falling in price at Moore's Law. Helicopters, by dint of their pilots and the safety and mechanical systems required to carry humans, never got cheap. Drones are already cheap and will get cheaper yet. 


There is a peculiar alignment of intellectual motivation among drones’ most ardent proponents—the people who are selling them—and their ardent foes in the civil libertarian and pacifist communities. Both believe that a sky crowded with drones is a realistic possibility, either to be desired or feared, and both overstate the significance of drones. One hears little about the danger of government officials, eager to get ahold of the latest gadgets, carelessly spending money on drones that actually aren’t as useful as they claim to be.

In some ways the current fever over drones resembles discussions of the helicopter in the middle of World War II. Early helicopters had been built before the war, but the technology came of age when Igor Sikorsky began building large numbers of them for the American military during the war. As Samuel Solomon, the president of Northeast Airlines, told the Associated Press in 1943, “The helicopter has tremendous possibilities.” Solomon prophesied air taxi services in which helicopters picked up businessmen on a rooftop in Boston and dropped them off “on the roof of an office in downtown New York.” Helicopters would also be used for express air-mail services, he said.

Of course, none of this came to pass, for one simple reason: Helicopters could do all of these things, but they could not do them cheaply or efficiently enough to displace other technologies. In war zones, where getting from place to place is dangerous and moving quickly is necessary, helicopters have become ubiquitous. Similarly, drones are widely used on battlefields (overt and covert) because of the unique capabilities they bring. But these capabilities are not cheap.

The analogy to helicopters appears to break down at one crucial point: It is possible, today and in the near future, to make small, cheap drones. But these small drones have more in common with model aircraft, which have thrived as a niche hobby for years, than they do with the Predators of Afghanistan and Yemen.

Endurance is a crucial question here. Small, cheap drones’ ability to remain in the air for long periods of time will not dramatically improve in the near future. This is because their endurance is limited by the ability to store energy, an area in which technological leaps are unlikely. Larger drones are large for a reason—they can carry enough fuel to stay aloft for long periods, and the complicated sensor packages they carry can be minimized only so much. Because few see them up close, we tend to mentally underestimate the difference between a Global Hawk, which weighs as much as a tractor-trailer; a Predator, which weighs as much as a small car; and the hobbyist-sized drones that are widely available.


There is no doubt that the helicopter plays an important role in shaping today’s world. Offshore oil rigs would be difficult to run without them; they often get severely wounded individuals to a hospital more quickly than any other method; they allow the rich to go skiing in places that are otherwise inaccessible. But helicopters are not everywhere, delivering the mail and serving as taxis. They are where it makes economic sense for them to be.

The same will be true of drones half a century from now, when they will have matured as a technology. Drones will no doubt play a larger role than they do today. But they will not fill the skies any more than helicopters have.

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Comment by MarcS on May 5, 2013 at 11:56am

Thanks for posting, worth reading the full article.

Especially the part in payload and cost comparison between Cessna and Scaneagle...  It really comes down to the one sentence: They are where it makes economic sense for them to be.

There is one difference to the helicopter the author missed in my point of view. Scalability! A helicopter needs to lift one person, at least. A UAS can be scaled down to the size of a hummingbird, which also allows applications on other scales. UAS won´t compete to Cessnas (at least for some time), they will find new applications.

Comment by Nick Turner on May 5, 2013 at 12:22pm
By 2020, the primary platform for remote sensing will be UAV's, better quality data at a cheaper price. Most organizations looking for geospatial products rely on a contractor to map an area, drones will be affordable for every researcher to afford as just another tool in the field, a definite game changer. I think it will take until 2020 due to regulatory constraints more then anything else.

Just my opinion though...
Comment by Jack Crossfire on May 5, 2013 at 1:53pm

A helicopter still needs to be a helicopter, but a drone can be anything.

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on May 6, 2013 at 12:25am

I tried to use the paperweight on my desk as a drone, but the range and payload were disappointing and the landing speed was a little high.


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