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With Drones and Other Autonomous Vehicles, Safety Must Come First

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Illustration of the concept of a safety zone for autonomous drones.

In a society soon to be crowded with billions of autonomous drones, package-delivery ground vehicles, and collaborative industrial robots, engineers need to focus just as much energy on building in safety as they do on expanding technical capacities.

Credit: Dan Page

Two decades ago, a semiautonomous, self-balancing, multipropeller aircraft would have been cutting-edge technology, hardly available at any price. Oh, how things have changed. On a recent walk through my favorite electronics retailer, I came across a tall stack of very capable little drones, selling for little more than it might cost for a nice dinner out.

Drones are one of several industries transformed by the manufacture of billions of smartphones. In the 14 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, batteries, sensors, and electronics in general have grown both better and cheaper, thus finding wide use in a range of devices having nothing to do with mobile communication. Cameras and virtual- or augmented-reality gear also come to mind.

Drones stacked up like cordwood make for an impressive display at a shop, but as the numbers of them in the skies climb, opportunities multiply for bad actors or just naive operators to do all sorts of problematic things: invading people's privacy, flying drones where they would threaten conventional aircraft, even weaponizing them.

From IEEE Spectrum
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