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Automation: the drone wars

With Google, Facebook and others in bidding races to buy drone technology, IT may need to look again at robotics.

Inside the enterprise: Robotics and autonomous systems have come a long way in just a few short years. Airborne drones fight wars, Google has robotic cars, and the US military, autonomous trucks. Electronic porters deliver medicines in hospitals, and automation is a mainstay of high-tech manufacturing.

But autonomous systems or robotic equipment has tended to be expensive and often, cumbersome.

Industrial robots are not, in fact, especially intelligent. Instead they automate small parts of the production process, before handing the work off to another robot, or to a human. This type of operation suits large-scale manufacturing (and big budgets). It is less helpful to smaller businesses, which want their robots to be flexible, just as they do their human staff.

Airborne drones, for their part, are both expensive and recently, controversial. Their use in combat zones such as Afghanistan has raised a number of ethical questions. But it has also spurred on development of the technology.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, the growth of low-cost "drone" aircraft aimed at hobbyists is expanding interest in robotic gear. News organisations such as the BBC have already started using drone quadcopters, recently to film the floods in south west England. For less than 1,000 it's possible to buy a good-quality quadcopter and connect up a camera such as a GoPro and record, or even stream, video.

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