You’re Never Alone With a Drone

Drones is a bad word to describe the future. We hear drones and we think bombs dropped unseen, we think surveillance and we think somebody talking incessantly about something not very interesting.

But I’m a big fan of drones. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles and while inevitably the military is ahead in leveraging the technology, and governments are restricting their usage, they represent as powerful an opportunity for the future as the mobile phone.

You average drone is a quadrocopter — a helicopter with four rotors. The design is more than a century old, but it has only been in the past decade that they’ve gotten cheap enough for any tom or dick or harry to have one. Now they can be as small as a butterfly, controlled by your iPhone.

Outside of the military, they’re still somewhat in the domain of hobbyists, but this is beginning to change. Journalists have been using them to cover protests, floods and sports. Oil and gas companies are using them to survey terrain and check out potential leaks. Conservation groups are using them to map terrain and track wildlife and poachers.

This is just the start. Drones could be deployed as sort of flying webcams so drivers can check traffic conditions ahead. Refugee agencies could do rapid surveys of movements of people to assess their needs before they turn up at a camp.

And that’s just by attaching a camera to a drone. You could attach a lot more.

Amazon has half-jokingly released a video showing how a drone could deliver a package. Attaching near-infrared sensors could detect the health of vines and crops. Surveyors could use distance sensors to quickly assess the size of a plot — or even the rooms inside a building.

This is beginning to happen, and in some industries it’s been happening for a while. Regulations are a little slow to keep pace — I spoke to one entrepreneur who moved his startup from California to Singapore because he said it was taking too long for the regulations to catch up with the reality. In Southeast Asia, he says, governments are more receptive to his drone as a service business.

The next step after commercial adoption, I think, is going to be when we as individuals see drones in the same way we see phones. The smartphone was originally just a phone — now it’s pretty much everything but a phone. Think computer, internet device, social tool, health monitor, stopwatch, radio, music player, tv, satnav, TV remote, calorie counter.

We’ll deploy a drone to water the garden, to check whether the bus is on its way, to deliver a pina colada to our spouse lounging by the pool. We’ll send one out to scare away the birds raiding our strawberry patch, to check out storm damage on a chimney, to figure out where there’s a parking spot in a crowded lot. We’ll have them accompany us on walks and runs as a kind of mobile security guard, providing direction, assessing threats and, in the event of rain, an umbrella.

For sure, there are privacy concerns. But we’ve been surprisingly sanguine about the sudden appearance of billions more cameras in our face — either on phones or streetlamps — so it may not take us long to figure out that the skies above us are not empty. We’ll develop ways to block intrusive sensors and cameras. And hopefully we’ll make the most of being able, for the first time in our lives, to be able to look down on ourselves from above.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.

Taxi Dating Apps?

I’ve been meeting a better class of taxi driver lately. It’s been made possible by something called GrabTaxi, which I have begun to think of as a dating app for passengers and taxi drivers.

Of course, it’s not really, that would be weird. But it kind of is.

It’s just one of many apps and services across the world seeking to make the process of booking taxis easier. At one end of the scale there’s Uber, which aspires to allow anyone to be a taxi driver, matching car and driver with passenger. At the simpler end are apps like GrabTaxi, which offer taxi drivers another way to take bookings beyond their usual dispatcher.

Prospective passenger and cabbie install the app, and the app does the rest.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about all these apps, as they contribute to making what can be a very a frustrating experience more efficient. Eventually, it’s likely they’ll change what we think of as a taxi ride: imagine a world where every car could offer taxi-like services, driven either by their own or someone who rents them. Taxi companies and the authorities which regulate them look set for a bumpy ride.

But that’s not here yet, and anyway, I’m more interested in a different kind of benefit: providing a way for passengers and taxi drivers to have more say in who they share a car-ride with.

Think about it: it’s kind of weird that we place so much stock in safety on the roads but entrust our lives with strangers — either driving or sitting in the back. In some countries it’s like playing Russian roulette.

But even in supposedly safe places like Singapore it’s a bit of a raffle. As anywhere, Singapore cabbies are a motley bunch, ranging from those you’d happily take home for tea to those you wouldn’t, er, share a car with, let alone drive it. It’s not that they’re deliberately trying to kill you, but you sometimes get the feeling they’d rather you weren’t really there. Rides can vary from stony silence to being a captive audience for angry tales of woe or pet enthusiasms.

I just spent a good half an hour in one cab listening to the cabbie’s collection of CD sermons from a charismatic preacher called Justin. It was OK until he started extolling the virtues of the birch on one’s offspring, complete with sound effects. I made my apologies and alighted.

This is where apps like GrabTaxi come in. There’s something about downloading and installing an app that seems to appeal to a classier kind of cabbie: on each occasion I’ve had need of their services, each has been a joy, if a tad eccentric.

One young man we’ll call Dave took us the airport the other day in car decorated like his bedroom, or what I imagine it to look like, obviously we didn’t get invited back. It was black, like his Iron Maiden t-shirt, complete with laced black curtains that made it feel like a cross between a heavy metal shrine and a coffin. In a nice way. Dave himself was charming.

This is the thing, you see. The great thing about first adopters of technology is that they all have something in common — in this case a taxi app. I the passenger have something to break the ice with, while they — and I’m trying not to generalise here — presumably quite enjoy their job and want to do more of it. With some taxi drivers that is not always the case: many, when they’re not actually trying to kill you, will spend a lot of the ride complaining about pretty much everything: the government, the taxi company, other drivers, life in general.

Not so early adopters. They have a more positive outlook on life. Hence this sense that the usefulness of GrabTaxi is less about finding a taxi, than finding a taxi driver who can get me from A to B and not either kill me or make me want to kill myself before we get there.

Of course, all this is incidental to apps like GrabTaxi. Their goal is to match taxi and passenger based on availability, not on compatibility. But that’s where I think they’ve missed a trick. Add a few tweaks to their app and they could allow passengers to choose cabbies based on their likely conversation topics, attitudes to issues of the day, history of comments from other passengers, whether they help with pushchairs and shopping. And vice versa: passengers, too, could get rated by cabbies.

It might encourage both parties to put on a better show.

And who knows? A few of us might get invited home for tea.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.