A drone for every home

Drones are becoming the latest military technology to find a home as consumer technology.

The present of military technology has always been the future of civilian technology. From jet engines to GPS and the internet, things invented for war have often found a new lease of life repurposed to make the world better, and drones are no exception.

The first foray into the consumer market is barely recognisable as a drone at all. The Parrot, a 60cm-square "flying toy" that retails for £300, doesn't look a huge amount like a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. It isn't armed with cruise missiles, for one thing, and it's quite a bit smaller. It's also not based around a plane-type design but is instead a "quadricopter": four rotors, which can spin independently so that the drone flies with a fair amount of stability. But it's an unmanned, fly-by-remote-control aerial vehicle. Definitely a drone.

The Parrot has two cameras, pointing forward and down, which let it be controlled by a smartphone or tablet over wifi. It streams video back to the "pilot", who uses simple onscreen controls to move it around within its 50m range. Out of the box, it is largely a toy. But all that changed when the hackers got hold of it.

Take the Joggobot. By modifying the software which controls the Parrot, a pair of game designers in Australia have created a robotic pace-setter. The drone flies ahead of a runner, keeping an eye on a pattern printed on their t-shirt, and maintaining a steady speed. The creators argue that their creation prompts questions:

Should the robot be a pacemaker for the jogger? If so, can this be motivating? Or should the Joggobot be more like a dog, reacting to the jogger like a pet companion? How does this affect the interaction, and in particular, the exercise experience for the jogger? Will joggers run faster or longer because of the robot? And, maybe more importantly, will the jog be more engaging?

The Joggobot is limited, however, by what the Parrot can do. Although the drone is undoubtedly impressive for consumer technology, it has a battery life of just 20 minutes – barely enough to break a sweat – and can't carry anything beyond its own weight, which means that it can't lug around a change of clothes while you run. 

For real breakthroughs, its not enough to use a toy based on military drones: you have to get hold of the real thing. That's what this Polish protester did, filming a three-way clash between the police, neo-nazis and anti-fascists from the sky:

The widespread availability of UAV technology raises the possibility that the surveillance state can be turned back on itself. Already, sites such as Fitwatch apply the police's logic of Forward Intelligence Teams (squads of officers dedicated to documenting the presence of known "domestic extremists" at protests) to the police themselves, publishing "spotter cards" to warn protesters of police with alleged histories of violence and so on. With civilians in charge of the tools of surveillance, hopefully the sort of mysterious CCTV blackout that, it was claimed, happened when Ian Tomlinson was killed, ought to become rare.

New technology always raises new issues. And there's no better demonstration of that than the Tacocopter.

A sort of half-joke, half-proof of concept, half-genuine business plan, the Tacocopter "combines four of the most prominent touchstones of modern America: tacos, helicopters, robots and laziness", as the Huffington Post's Jason Gilbert puts it. The idea is simple: hungry San Franciscans launch an app, which checks their GPS and bills their iTunes account before launching a drone carrying a taco to whereever they may be.

It doesn't actually exist, of course. But the founders insist that they are serious, with only the minor hurdles of the plan's illegality and impracticality holding them back. The company's co-founder, Star Simpson, told Gilbert that:

Current US FAA regulations prevent . . . using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, such as drones] for commercial purposes at the moment. Honestly, I think it's not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people's heads . . . [O]n the other hand, it's a little bit ironic that that's the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review.

The practical concerns, described by Gilbert as "minor", as still pretty tricky:

Navigating the treacherous terrain of an urban environment, keeping the food warm, finding a city map precise enough to avoid crashes 100 per cent of the time, avoiding birds, balconies and telephone wires, delivering food to people indoors, delivering food to the right person, dealing with greedy humans who would just steal the Tacocopter as soon as it got to them, etc.

The legal hurdles are what have been focused on heavily by bloggers such as the Economist's Ryan Avent. It's more fun to think that evil big government is keeping us from our robot-delivered street food than it is to handle the fact that it's quite tricky to automatically fly a quadricopter through a city. But as Avent says, "It's a short leap from the ridiculous to the transformative."

Right now, though, most of what we can do with drones is staying firmly in the former category. The pinnacle of consumer drone technology remains the Orvillecopter:

This week's edition of the New Statesman features a cover story on drones, and is on stands now.

A Parrot drone is displayed at CES. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.