Digital transformation: Prepare to be drone away

In her final blog for Brightwave, Scriptwriter Sophie Dodds looks at the way certain emergent technologies are opening up the world to new innovations and opportunities that will change the way we live – and learn.

When I think of how fluid and changeable the tech industry is, I visualise it as an amorphous mass, a shapeshifter akin to the ‘boggart’ of the Harry Potter world. The boggart, as Potter nerds will know, draws on people’s fears and then changes its appearance accordingly depending on who stands before it. The world of technology is, at times, as equally nebulous and rapidly responsive; exploiting not fears, but conversely adapting to (or, some would say, inventing) the hopes, desires and needs of the world to fill a market gap.

So, when asking myself: “which technologies are changing the world – and what can we as L&D practitioners – learn from them?” there are innumerable shapes and paths that manifest themselves before me, each one proffering its own singular appeal. One route points temptingly in the direction of a world bursting at the seams with VR. It promises fun, immersion and escapism, a fantastical micro-universe all rolled up and neatly deposited into wearable headsets, poised and ready to unpack its wonders with a single turn of the head. The IFA taking place in Berlin this week unveiled more mind-blowingly clever VR technology (as well as touchscreen fridges and an 8 kilogram laptop), but for now gamers can be sated with a range of consumer products from the Oculus Rift, to HTC Vive, and the allure of the Sony Playstation VR, out in October.

Another image rearing its head, to the delight of all those terrified of parallel parking, is ‘self-driving cars’, championed and prototyped by the boffins at Google and Uber.

A nod should almost certainly be given to music streaming apps such as Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify, the latter of which tragically (and perhaps for some, thankfully) eviscerated any remaining vestiges of bad homemade mixtapes with its launch back in 2008.

But, in the distance, a smaller, slightly more obscure signpost emerges, bearing a small and barely legible word: drones.

Drone ecology

Let’s go back to basics and ask the first questions: what is a drone, and what can they do? The drone has been described as spanning ‘the gap between toy and tool of the future’ . Indeed, it vacillates between the realms of seriousness and jest, and much like many successful digital learning solutions, blurs the lines between serious, productive activity (or learning) and play.

But however much the word might evoke images of a mischievous ten-year-old causing havoc with a remote controlled quadrocopter, the power of the drone in the adult world is not to be underestimated. Even outside of the military, where they have been patrolling the skies for years, drones are already currently being piloted to carry out some fairly lifesaving stuff. European emergency services have recently been trained to use drones for rescue operations, including road traffic accidents, large fires, and chemical spills. Police in Surrey reportedly own the largest drone squadron in the UK after being given £250,000 to buy a fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

And it’s not difficult to see why drones are replacing more traditional methods either. Research shows the average cost of a helicopter as approximately £850 per hour, whereas drones can perform many of the same tasks at a comparatively cheaper rate, are far more agile and easier to control.

Crucially, they also reduce the use of pilots in dangerous situations such as search and rescue missions or in canvassing difficult terrain, therefore mitigating the danger to human lives.

Even on the local level in the UK, town councils have started using drones as a more effective way to assess planning applications for building alterations and new buildings.

This year twelve councils purchased or hired drones and used them for surveying dangerous buildings and monitoring coastal erosion. Meanwhile, in the business world, retail giant Amazon follows in DHL’s footsteps with its plans to use drone deliveries. Amazon is certain that one day, seeing their Prime Air drones delivering parcels (and all within just 30 minutes of ordering) will be “as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road” . Even the Royal Mail has expressed a similar notion of implementing drone deliveries, as well as autonomous delivery trucks.

Drones may even change the internet as we know it. In the not too distant future, you might scoff nostalgically, remembering the old days of waving your phone around, waiting hopelessly for a signal. Google’s codenamed ‘SkyBender’ project is underway, aiming to deliver increased internet access via “thousands of high-altitude self-flying aircraft”. Being uncontactable may become even more archaic than it is now, as will the excuse of not having any signal!

US-based tech-theorist John Robb also suggests the emergence of the next big thing: ‘dronet’ – “millions of drones and millions of landing pads, interconnecting with each other according to simple rules and decentralized ownership” .

While the drone promises to take to the skies to revolutionise the emergency services, threatening to disseminate the internet to all corners of the earth, and change the face of logistics as corporate conglomerates know it, it is also being used increasingly by the average Joe, and not always correctly. There’s been a significant increase in police calls relating to drones; a whopping 461 incidents were recorded last year, up from just 19 in 2013 . Nigel Tomlinson, Chairman of the British FPV Drone Racing Association, suggests that this is not a fault of the law, rather a lack of proper education relating to drone legislation. He recently told Sky news:

“The legislation is already there to govern these things and the safe use of them and how to use them properly. I think the sport and the technology of drones has grown so fast that the education hasn’t caught up with it … people can buy these off shelves on the high street and they don’t understand the law. We just need to help educate people so they can use these things safely.”

So what can we take from these musings on drones, and how might it relate to digital learning, I hear you mutter? As with other previous labour-saving technologies (such as computers, automated factories, robots) these new techs create new spaces for themselves to operate in. The rise of drones and technologies such as AI which can work in parallel and synergistically with unmanned and automated devices and platforms, will inevitably result in new types of business, new job profiles, and potentially spawn millions of previously unimagined opportunities.

There have been equal parts excitement, concern and scepticism about the rise of unemployment levels and deskilling as automation intensifies. One natural conclusion is that an increased number of jobs will be outsourced to our more productive non-human counterparts.

However, we must remember that new ways of thinking and working will always engender new practical and intellectual frameworks and hence new learning needs. As evidenced in the surge of drone incidents in recent years, although drones are powerful, versatile tools that can be used to radically improve processes across different disciplines and industries, education on drone legislation and usage is lacking.

Drone air-traffic control and supervision, new micro-meteorologists tracking the minute-by-minute weather patterns along the half-hour route from the warehouse to your house – all of these and many more prospective new industries will require not just new training, but new training approaches.

As with all new and complex technology, the increased use of drones will – whether for local councils or police forces, or even as an Amazon employee – necessitate rethinking, proper training and behaviour change.

New technology and learning will always be symbiotic. While the technological complexity involved in our day-to-day lives increases, so will the need for new knowledge and training on how to manage and process it. Those of us in the business of learning a handy asset to have on the brink of a futuristic technology revolution.

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