What jobs will flying robots be doing in future?

In the James Cameron blockbuster The Terminator and its follow up sequels, the world was ruled by machines.

Flying robots patrolled the skies while land-based vehicles with minds of their own trundled along on the ground below.

That future is fast becoming a reality.

But thankfully, instead of trying to wipe out humanity, these drones could soon be an indispensable component of our lives: building skyscrapers using 3D printing technology; transporting cargo across town; crop spraying; or helping find people trapped in buildings.

War and peace

Lockheed Martin‘s K-Max is a full size, unmanned helicopter, capable of both autonomous and remote-controlled operations.

Previously deployed in combat zones, it is now increasingly being used for civilian applications, from fire fighting, to heavy lifting and oil drilling.

And the firm’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (Ares) aircraft features rotating engines that allow it to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but also fly fast like a conventional aeroplane.

Ares drone graphic
Lockheed Martin’s Ares remote-controlled drone concept could carry pods for different purposes
Thunderbird 2
Thunderbird 2, from Gerry Anderson’s famous TV show, could also swap cargo pods

It’s like “a real life Thunderbird 2”, says Andy Horler, Lockheed Martin’s new business development manager.

“It can carry lots of different types of pods under it. This allows the system to be used for a wide range of tasks, such as transporting personnel or carrying cargo or medical supplies,” he says.

“From a business perspective, Ares could be used to reduce operating costs by sharing aircraft across different organisations, each with their own pod.”

Amazon drone graphic
Delivery drones are feasible for small packages, but are they safe flying over urban areas?

Fire, police and ambulance services could all share a common pool of the aircraft, he believes. Ares is scheduled to begin flight tests next month.

Amazon has grabbed the headlines with its plans for delivery drones, but the Japanese government has also tested unmanned drone deliveries in a de-regularised zone in the city of Chiba.

The drones carried wine and milk from different points in the city to parks, businesses, and a residential building.

Singapore has also recently launched its own experiment in collaboration with Airbus.


When drones can collaborate, their impact could be even greater.

Lockheed recently tested an unmanned helicopter carrying and then dropping off an unmanned ground vehicle to conduct a resupply mission.

Traffic management

The other big issue is how all these drones will be able to fly around without crashing into each other and potentially injuring people below.

US space agency Nasa’s Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) project aims to monitor and direct drones flying at low altitudes without the need for a human controller.

Nasa and US Federal Aviation Administration operators recently flew 22 drones simultaneously using the UTM system.

Woman monitoring big computer screens
A Nasa operator monitors the skies during testing of its drone management system

During the tests the system was able to recognise live and virtual aircraft and respond by sending messages and alerts to the drones.

But while drone “sense and avoid” technology is developing rapidly, regulators will need a lot of convincing before allowing aerial motorways above dense urban areas.

This isn’t stopping investors piling into this sector, however.

The commercial drone market is already valued at more than $127bn (£88.5bn; €112bn), according to a study by accountancy firm PwC, with infrastructure, agriculture and transport industries accounting for the bulk of the market.

The FAA has issued more than 3,100 commercial drone permits, and unmanned aerial vehicles are now cleared to fly commercially in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico.

Flying, intelligent robots may be buzzing our way sooner than we think