He walked with that mixture of determination and anxiety which suggests someone late for an appointment. In one hand he carried a big, square metal flight case and in the other he grasped his phone, alternately holding it to his ear and then out in front of him, staring at it in frustration. In this part of the world, an expression of surprise at not being able to find a phone signal is a sure sign someone’s not a local.
Over in the west, where the harbour was filling with water on the evening tide, the sun had just set and the light was fading.
“Is this the south side?” He asked.
I pointed away in the distance to where he was looking for. He’d come to the wrong part of the harbour, several miles from where he had intended and with the tide now rushing in, he would have to retrace his steps to reach it from another village.
“Damn! I had my boss on the phone, he said he was there…he was looking at it…but I can’t get him now.” He looked down at his phone again, hoping it might have picked up a signal.
“Well, it might work,” he muttered, as he knelt down and opened up the flight case. Inside was a white, quadcopter drone and a remote controller with an iPad Mini as a viewfinder.
“How far do you think it is?” He asked me. The end of the harbour was about four miles I told him, but the south bank he was looking for was perhaps a little closer.
“What’s its range?” I enquired.
“No idea. I’ve only just got it. My boss’ boat has come loose from its mooring and went aground down there. I told him I might be able to find it with this.”
He removed the drone from the protective foam and pressed a button. There was a series of robotic beeps and its LEDs flashed into life in the evening light.
What struck me was how fast it rose. As pilot, he needed no particular skill. The drone itself automated all of that, soaring up to a height of about fifty metres in a couple of seconds. It hovered there, holding station above us, and the iPad viewfinder showed an expansive view of the harbour and the twisting network of marsh creeks which lead inland.
He sent it off westward, occasionally asking me about the geography he was seeing in the viewfinder.
I’d only come out for an evening walk with the dog, but since he seemed eager to demonstrate his toy and I was eager to see it in action, I hung on, enjoying the bird’s eye view of a landscape I usually only see from ground level.
The drone, long since out of sight, beeped back to the controller, signifying it had reached its range limit – 500 metres, it turns out. He let it hover there at its limits for a while, panning the camera, searching in vain for the lost boat, which I suspected was further down the harbour than he could see.
He decided he would try to make it to the next village, where he might be able to fly closer to his target, before the light faded entirely. With a single button, the drone was recalled, auto-piloting itself back. Again, the speed was astonishing. I heard the noise before I saw it, my dog starring up in wonder at this flying menace.
“He won’t go for it, will he?” The pilot asked. “Some of them don’t like it.”
I looked down at my docile labrador, a dog who is afraid of his own shadow, and reassured the pilot his drone was safe from being savaged.
It hovered above us, landing lights flashing in the dusk, and began its vertical descent, steadily at first and then with a slowness and precision which ensured it settled back amid the sandy dune grass with the gentlest of touches.
Every year a handful of boats slip their moorings and wash up in various corners of the harbour. Traditionally, one of the local boat yards keeps an eye out for them and tries to reach the absentee owner. Often, depending on the cycle of tides, there’s simply nothing which can be done for a few weeks or months. Eventually, when a large enough tide occurs, someone will try to float it free and return it to a mooring.
The speed and precision of the drone provided a stark contrast to this slower rhythm of life. The potential was obvious, however. Seeing it in this environment brought home just how significant a contribution autonomous machines may make to saving time and risk in the future. Channel buoys, sandbanks and wayward boats could all be regularly checked from the air, sending reports back to the local boat yards, harbour authorities and boat owners.
Drones have improved fast. There was none of the frailty and expert pilot skills which would have been needed even a couple of years ago. This chap wasn’t a professional – merely a friend who happened to have bought himself a drone, doing a favour for his boss. Yet, there he was, wandering around the coast at sunset, sending a machine with a high resolution video camera off into the evening sky to do his bidding. We already live in extraordinary times, but this is just the beginning of something much bigger.
To explore more MEX thinking on this topic, try these essays:
- User experience principles for robots & IoT
- Life beneath the hovering eye
- Gita, the faithful fast forward follow drone
- Smartphones moved by machines
Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.