Google Sees Role for Drones in Video Conferencing

In a patent approved this month, Google engineers envision small quadcopters that are armed with a screen and video and audio components.

video drone

Google engineers are looking to combine drones and video conferencing.

In a patent awarded to the tech giant this week, Google outlines the idea of a drone carrying a screen, video camera and audio capabilities through which video conferences can be conducted while the small device is maneuvered around the room. The drone could be controlled either through a cell phone that is attached to the device and that connects it to the internet, or that can be paired remotely with another device, according to the patent.

Such a drone-enabled video conferencing system would bring a new element to a space that has relied on systems in rooms or, more recently, attached to remote-controlled robots, the engineers wrote in the patent document.

"Implementation of a mobile telepresence system on a relatively compact and operationally efficient airborne platform such as a quadcopter may provide significant improvements in, for example, speed, maneuverability, energy consumption and the like, facilitating access to spaces which may be otherwise difficult to access by a larger and less maneuverable platform," they wrote.

The video conferencing space is undergoing a significant transformation as enterprises demand more software- and cloud-based solutions. Large telepresence systems that are set up in conference rooms are giving way to smaller, less-expensive products that can be used in smaller spaces, moved from one place to another and used on a variety of mobile devices—such as smartphones and tablets—from anywhere and at any time.

Most mobile solutions have involved attaching a tablet to a robot that can be moved around a building. However, those also have limitations, including where they can be used and the amount of power needed to run them, the engineers wrote.

"A mobile telepresence system may be included on a robot which may be remotely navigated by a user, for example, throughout spaces in a work place," they wrote. "Such a telepresence robot may be remotely navigated, for example, through corridors, into and out of offices, conference rooms and other work spaces, and the like. However, the size and energy-consumption levels of this type of telepresence robot may hinder its ability to effectively navigate complicated spaces with limited open floor space for the robot to traverse. Additionally, this type of telepresence robot cannot traverse stairs, and would require on-site human intervention to access a work space on a different floor using an elevator."

Video-enabled drones are being used for a variety of jobs, from inspection of pipelines and towers to mapping and emergency situations. Using them for video conferencing could free up where meetings can take place, whether within a building or in some remote outdoor areas.

The Google patent envisions a small quadcopter with a screen attached to one end that would show the remote participants. Another version shows a drone with projection camera attached to the body that would be used to display an image below the device. In any version, the drone also includes audio and video components. The quadcopter is in the shape of an "H," and could hover or move as needed.

There's no indication in the patent whether Google is actively working on drones for video conferencing, but the company has been building out its capabilities in the space. The company two years ago bought drone maker Titan Aerospace, and is among a number of businesses—including Amazon—that see drones as a new way to deliver products to homes. Last year, Google was one of several tech vendors that was named to the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) task force to help the agency come up with drone regulations.

In a recent report on the general state of aviation in the United States, FAA officials predicted that by 2020, about 4.3 million unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be sold to consumers, and another 2.7 million will be sold to businesses for commercial use. ABI Research analysts are forecasting that that more than 90 million consumer UAVs will ship worldwide in 2025, up from 4.9 million in 2014. Revenues by 2020 will hit $4.6 billion.