It’s been hard to avoid the buzz surrounding nano quadrotors this week, following the posting of Vijay Kumar’s jaw-dropping TED talk – and the associated viral video of the semi-autonomous machines playing the James Bond theme.

The quadrotors are impressive – incredibly impressive.  But I’m sure I am not the only person watching these videos who felt a shiver of apprehension about where the technology might lead.

When people talk about emerging technologies – especially when the focus is on potential risks and unintended consequences – it doesn’t take long for the usual suspects to emerge: with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering usually appearing toward the top of the list.  But I wonder whether focusing on big, well-publicized technology trends sometimes masks some of the less discussed but more important technology innovations that are already impacting on people’s lives.

Tim Harper and I underscored this concern in a report from the World Economic Forum last year where we suggested we should be focusing just as much on the innovations that build on synergistic connections between technology platforms (see below), because this is where many of the more significant disruptive and game-changing technologies will emerge.

It’s partly because of this that I have been so intrigued by the nano quadrotor work coming out of the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Technology innovation – building on technology platforms. World Economic Forum: Building a Sustainable Future

The nano quadrotors that Vijay Kumar’s team are developing are a prime example of synergistic innovation leading to a game-changing technology.  The quadrotors combine components from multiple technology platforms – sensors, materials, information processing and others – and as a result they present opportunities and risks that depend on the synergism between these platforms.  In other words, the potential disruption comes not from the platforms, but how they are combined into products.

Just thinking briefly about the potential impacts of the nano quadrotors, it’s not hard to see how it could shake things up.  In fact Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, tweeted after Vijay’s talk:

On the plus side, the nano quadrotor technology clearly opens new avenues into the areas of search and rescue, exploration and surveillance.  But it’s also frighteningly easy to see how it could lead down darker paths.  I’m sure I am not the first to have the sensation of dystopic Sci-Fi movies playing out before my eyes as I watch the video above.

Applications in military intelligence are a no-brainer – as well as in tracking terrorist activities, or any other activities that goverments and others want to monitor for that matter.  The swarming ability of the nano quadrotors also opens up intriguing new options for semi-autonomous offensive systems that are able to outsmart defensive screens.  And it’s not hard to imagine the devices being deployed on search and destroy missions, equipped with advanced face recognition capabilities and some suitably nasty toxin.  And that’s just after giving the possibilities a cursory thought.

Of course, the technology is almost definitely not as mature as the videos suggest – just yet.  The most impressive videos – including the nano quadrotors playing the James Bond theme – downplay the complexity of the external feedback and control systems needed and the limited range of the devices.  But this is where synergistic technology innovation that builds on advanced technology platforms comes into its own.

For instance, take these four possible limitations of the technology, and the likely availability of technology-based solutions (and I’m speculating a little here, not being a nano quadrotor insider):

Sensors:  To work effectively, the nano quadrotors need feedback – and lots of it.  In the lab, this is provided through a combination of on-board and remote sensors.  Although out of lab use is possible, it seems to be limited in part by the size, range, speed and sensitivity of on-board sensors at present.  This will change.  With advances in sensor technology that are already on the horizon, it will be easier to equip the devices with small, lightweight sensors that will allow increasingly autonomous operation.

Materials:  The nano quadrotors depend on lightweight, high performance materials to ensure minimum power requirements and maximum maneuverability.  Nanoscale science and engineering are already leading to a new generation of lightweight high performance materials that will further improve performance, as well as enabling further miniaturization.

Data processing: The current generation of nano quadrotors depend on incredibly powerful and sophisticated data processing capabilities.  The next generation will demand even more.  My guess is that there is still a shortfall between what can be achieved and what is needed for strong out of lab performance.  But we’re getting there.  There is still no end in sight to the exponential growth in processing power, or in smart new ways of using this power to process complex datasets on the fly.

Power.  Vijay Kumar estimates that the current crop of nano quadrotors consume 15 watts of power – giving them in my estimate a maximum of 10 – 20 minute operating time between charges using current battery technologies.  Not a lot if you are on an extended search and rescue mission!  But battery technology is still advancing rapidly, and over the next few years it is entirely conceivable that this range will be doubled or more.  Perhaps more intriguingly, it’s not too hard to imagine extending the range of a nano quadrotor to tens of miles by combining the its semi-autonomous behavior with hundreds of well-placed recharging stations.  And if those stations used wireless power-transmission technologies currently under development – and thousands of them were air-dropped over a region – the effective range of nano quadrotor swarms could be extended to hundreds of miles or more.

Even looking at these four potentially limiting factors on nano quadrotor performance and use, it becomes apparent that current technology platforms are close to providing solutions that will make this a viable, powerful, and probably highly disruptive technology.  Whether this will lead to a net gain or a net loss for society is by no-means clear yet.  What I think is clear is that focusing on the responsible development of technology platforms, to the exclusion of the innovations that arise at the intersections between them, runs the risk of us missing what is most likely to change the world we live in.

Andrew Maynard