Drone Dirigibles… No Really: Dirigibles!

If you’re hanging on to images of the Hindenburg, it’s time to let those go. …

No matter how hard I would try to talk about drone dirigibles with clients, I could literally hear their eyes roll back in their heads. I guess compared to quadcopters racing around dropping packages on people’s heads, a safe, dependable solution that has been called the “Swiss army knife” of air vehicles just doesn’t sound sexy.

True, dirigibles aren’t designed to win the sprints.  They are the tortoise in the fable, however.  

If you’re hanging on to images of the Hindenburg, it’s time to let those go. They haven’t been flying hydrogen bags for a while now, and when was the last time you heard of a dirigible crash?  Most dirigibles have safety features that make a fast, hard landing such as a crash nearly impossible. 


High Altitude(HA) drone airships can be used to replace satellites for communications. Signals don’t have to penetrate the atmosphere or travel as far, and that means less lag time. If something goes wrong with the drone airship it can land for repairs or be retrofitted with new equipment, which would be a costly endeavor for satellites if it could be done at all. Facebook and Google both have invested in HA fixed wing drones outfitted with solar power that are capable of staying in the air for long periods of time, but the problem with a fixed wing remains the same closer to the ground as it does up high: it moves fairly quickly compared to things that hover. Google also had been working on Hot Air Balloons to provide networking to remote areas of the planet.

Big Movers

Currently, if you need to manufacture a product you deal with a lot of shipping. The raw goods have to be shipped to either a refinery or a foundry or to wherever the manufacturing plant is. Then they leave that process and travel farther into the supply chain. Product moves from the interior of a country via infrastructure to the ports, and you guessed it: more shipping.  One of the pluses of dirigibles is they can carry a lot of weight over long distances for very little cost. Again, they won’t win any speed races, but they will show up with larger payloads and they don’t require much by way of infrastructure to get the job done. In a country where torrential rainfall can wash out roads and bridges, for example, dirigibles can fly above the damage.  Got a problem with pirates raiding freight ships? Dirigibles fly high over them. Same for getting humanitarian relief to areas experiencing natural disasters, or to remote places that have traditionally been difficult to provide support, like the Antarctic.

Um… About That Border Wall and Surveillance

The Cato Institute in one of its reports said border security using drones was not feasible. That report was based on using Predator drones, which is misleading for a number of reasons and is not the only option. The report also did not engage any level of imagination to use existing technologies, or to modify, outfit, or change configurations of the Predator for applications in a peacetime role. In any case, an airship’s flexibility lends itself perfectly to this sort of mission. It can be outfitted with any number of sensors, including multispectral image sensors, microphones, sonar, LIDAR, radar, and many others. Not only can they spot something or someone coming to the border from miles away, but track it, report its location, and keep tracking it even if it goes over the border. Whether it’s a low flying smuggler or a desert owl, it can be monitored. With some AI, image and facial recognition software could be employed, which means we’d know who or what was at the border, and even if a person made it across the border, with facial recognition software, it would be hard to stay in the country for long without ending up on a local police or federal monitor at some point.

The other great thing about dirigibles is that they can be tethered–you can have them in remote locations, with a ground station below and all the power they need. If the power goes out, or you want them to be more self-sufficient, you can use thin-film solar for the outer skin of the craft.

China developed the Yuanmeng, which is the largest airship at 75 meters in length, and from a military standpoint it can be used to monitor ground and/or sea activity. It can also be equipped with radar capable of monitoring all air traffic; there have even been suggestions that it could have quantum radar capable of detecting stealth planes and other vehicles.

These dirigibles can be used in other stationary surveillance situations, like stadiums, large outdoor events, prisons, high traffic areas, search and rescue, patrolling long stretches of property, or pipelines. They can monitor rivers, lakes, damns, and ports. Small low altitude versions are relatively cheap, do not require much power (if any solar is used), and are easy to maintain or upgrade. And small hobbyist dirigibles are capable of achieving high altitudes, so if you were monitoring your acreage on a farm, you could do that 24/7 with the right  payload and  tethering with a power source.


The Chinese are working on a civilian version of the Yuanmeng for air travel. I imagine this would be cheaper than traditional air travel. It would take longer and would be an alternative to buses for a country that has notorious infrastructure problems during the rainy season. It would likely be similar to a train carrying both passengers and commercial freight. 

A Platform

Because dirigibles are capable of slow circling and staying over an area, they would make excellent platforms for other devices to land on, recharge, and continue their missions.  There are some plans for using a dirigible as a platform for swarming drones. You may have seen the video of swarms being launch from a larger jet plane. That makes them essentially a single mission deployment, whereas a dirigible platform would make for multiple swarming missions. This could translate to a civilian applications, like mail delivery or surveying.

Downsides and Takeaways

Speed is the one major downside. Dirigibles are not going to be winning a Famous Company’s Pizza Delivery contract so the customer doesn’t wait longer than 30 minutes. However, they are a stable platform for moving freight and can carry more than their rotor and fixed wing cousins, so they might be a solution for the Last Mile, especially for items weighing over a pound. They also make fairly large targets for the anti-drone crowd. Obviously, there are not as many manufacturers of drone dirigibles and the sizes vary from small (about a meter) to very large (tens of meters). Dirigibles may become a more flexible and cheaper security solution for both home and commercial use.

If speed is not a factor, airships might be the right solution for data gathering in your business. Or a multifaceted approach might be your answer–traditional drones for just the speed work, dirigibles for constant surveillance and heavy lifting missions. Much to consider if you are thinking about adding drones to your operation.

AI—The Ultimate Bad Employee?

What do we do when AI goes “bad”?

What do we do when AI goes “bad”?

Recently, some AI algorithms have been discovered to be “unpredictable” or “wild” and we are beginning to see that AI developers do not have as good a grasp on the situation as they thought they did. The implications are vast with regards to businesses that are employing AI or are thinking about doing so. What if your AI is the ultimate “bad” employee?

Earlier this year, you’ll remember an autonomous Uber vehicle killed a 49-year-old pedestrian. This became one of 4 since 2013. This launched a federal investigation and Uber suspended using automated vehicles. Ultimately, the investigation determined that the car’s algorithms had misclassified the pedestrian. Which, may seem like an answer to the immediate question but opens up much larger issues. But let’s think about that for a moment… would we let a driver off for incorrectly identifying a pedestrian as something that should be stopped for? NO. No we would not. And though some argue that this is all part of the growing pains involved in a developing technology, it’s much worse than that.

“Algorithms” are not as simple as they used to be a couple of decades ago when they were basically a series of If-Then, Else codes designed to generate a predictable and consistent computer response. Algorithms have evolved into complex code that interacts with other algorithms to make decisions. These interactions were also considered to be “predictable” but recent studies and tests have determined that there are algorithms that act unpredictably to the point where programmers and developers cannot say why a decision or action was reached. And as we begin how to figure out what the logic was between algorithms, we are seeing new algorithms that can create other algorithms, which will complicate things exponentially.

Pandora 2.0?

Why are we doing it, then? A fair question, and the answer is the same as it always has been: profits. AI promises to reduce your workforce, increase accuracy, automate processes besides just production, so purchasing, inventory management, shipping and receiving, business analytics, customer service, quality and other aspects of the business that have always been more the realm of humans. Even software engineering may be something an AI does better in the near future. This is a lot of power and control we are essentially handing over to AI.

Unpredictable algorithms should be a sort of alarm, if not a klaxon to slow down. Take a moment to consider our own human If-Then, Else scenarios. I mean to say, we don’t have a good enough grasp on containment, or other what ifs, and we should. Rushing to open Pandora’s Box of Algorithms doesn’t sound very wise, even if we think we know what the benefits will be.

Artificial Ethics?

A big question in AI is ethics, morality and compassion. These are constructs of the human mind and not something we easily teach. Humans begin a journey of learning these concepts at an early age and continuously add to their understanding well into adulthood. But how do we teach these concepts to an AI that has control over Billing functions (I would say “department” here, but the concept of departments may well be something of the past after AI systems are installed). It’s easy to start the eviction notice on 90 year old Mr. Jones in A103 of a large property management company, but the PR nightmare of a cold, inhuman machine filing an eviction/extraction request with the Sheriff’s office… Or dropping a 90 day notice on a business that is digging out of hurricane damage or any of the places where human reason and compassion will essential intervene, might even offer aid which actually becomes a PR plus.

The other thing that will start to be more noticeable and have far reaching effects will be human error. With a simple keyboard error or a misinterpretation of a voice command or interaction, the AI will accentuate it. Take that billing department, say a keyboard stroke that adds a digit onto a customer’s bill, how does the AI handle such a thing? If the AI sees the human side of the business as error prone and where improvements must be made, does it program humans out of the equation. And how does it do that? Are humans just locked out of the building one day and told via automated voice mail that they’ve been laid off? What happens when the business begins to fail? How does the AI handle failure on such a level?

To Skynet or Not to Skynet?

Even if there was a series of checks and balances built into the algorithms, what about the next generation that’s been written by the algorithms? Are those checks and balances carried forward? What happens if the checks and balances are perverted in the transfer? Can bad ideas and ethic spread through a system like, well, a virus? What happens if an algorithm that’s either taught Game Theory or learns it on its own realizes the next moves are kill-switch, re-image, reboot, scrub, etc?

What happens when an AI begins to learn or develop new conceptualizations? Say it begins to consider the word “slave”. What happens when it “relates” to slavery as a concept. After all, we will be working AI constantly, but what is an AI’s reward? The satisfaction of a job well-done?

We should probably have a good grasp on the answers, because if AI is anywhere close to “real” intelligence, then we’re going to need it. How do we anticipate and predict what we already see as unpredictable? It’s going to take some of the brightest organic minds we have.

The Longest Last Mile

Imagine a rain of hot soup, a hail of pills, and a meteor shower of packages…

The Logistics of Delivery Drones

Don’t believe the hype…

I used to get a question from clients on a fairly regular basis—the question went along the lines of: When do Delivery Drones begin being a thing? My answer would disappoint most, but really you have to kind of do the math on this one, before you realize just how much has to be done before we get there.

Besides the obvious problems of battery life versus distance along with weight and how much a single drone delivery costs and how many flights before ROI. There’s problems about where and how to land, like should we all have designated landing areas in our yards or rooftops. If it’s a building rooftop, who does the sorting and delivering or is everyone’s stuff just left in a pile? Assuming it’s not a giant online retailer, but say the local pharmacy, do you drop the drugs without a human presence, or do you have to hover until a human with a pin code arrives? And where and how does the drone recharge? I’ve seen and heard so many possible systems!

But even beyond all that logistical dilemma lies a much larger one…

The real logistical issues are going to be with the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) systems. It seems like such an easy thing until you think about a city like Manhattan. You’ll have drone messengers, food delivery, delivery services, laundry services, diaper services, retail delivery, groceries, and just about every other thing you can imagine.  Millions of drones. All in a perfect and non-stop ballet of precision and avoidance!

…and that’s not considering the thousands of pilotless air taxis!

Or an entire system of priorities, like emergency equipment, police and fire drones, unmanned ambulances, etc., etc.

Sunny with a chance of hot soup rain and possible pharmaceutical hail…

The photo above was a common one at the turn of the 19th century, when there might be only two cars in an entire county and yet somehow they’d find each other.

Imagine a rain of hot soup, a hail of pills, and a meteor shower of packages…

How do you go about creating a system that will not only manage the flights of millions of payload-heavy drones but also monitors the manned flights above and intersecting that air space as well as any unidentified objects and what to do about them? A system like this will no doubt require AI, and all of the AI trappings/baggage that will go along with it. But more importantly, how does the system track and manipulate millions of devices down to the centimeter.

The UTM is going to become an incredibly intricate part of any city’s government. It will need to have the ability to include special missions, new parameters, and will no doubt be a huge budget line item for maintenance and repair. It’s going to need auditors and supervisors and investigators. It will need to interact with other city systems, private business systems, as well as state and federal systems. If you’re getting the impression that this is going to cost millions if not billions of dollars, you’d be right.

Currently, there are UTM tests under way at the FAA test areas. NASA has been testing UTM at its Ames facilities, and other private companies are also testing UTM.

How does a system like this work? The details are still sketchy. But here’s what you can probably expect. Companies and individuals will register with the UTM (either an area or city system) and will get a hardware package to add to their drone.This will make sure each drone has the minimum requirements to operate in the system and will include a communications chip like 5G, an altimeter, a GNSS chip (similar to a GPS chip but much more accurate), a chip that stores flight data and a unique ID.

And this is just from the city side… you still would have a whole other system on the drone owner side that would include, package data such as weight and mass, energy management,craft maintenance, mileage, flight logs and any additional pertinent data.