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Ranking Our Top Ten Aerial Robots in Pop Culture

These futuristic drones might feel far-fetched, but the future is much closer than you think.

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By Justin Lehmann, Marketing Coordinator

In a movie, it’s easy to throw a drone at a problem. Sometimes piloted by a human remotely like the DJIs used in Bad Boys for Life or fully autonomous like the DWARFS from Marvel’s: Agents of Shield, they take on the wild tasks and impossible situations that can only exist on other worlds or maybe our dystopian Sliding Doors future.

In this timeline, while we may not have flying cars in 2020 we do have drones. Lots of drones. We even have movies including drones partially filmed by drones. Drone Inception … or Drone-Ception? Maybe.

Seeing as how we’re constantly evaluating new drone platforms to mount our aerial autonomy software stack, we wanted to test the team with some fictional fliers and see how they stood up to our real-world scrutiny. 

Here’s a look at our Top 10 drones in pop culture, ranked by how realistic we think are:

#10 — Light Scanner in Aliens (1986)

A “drone” in Aliens scanning for life forms

This might be one of the first “mapping drones” we could spot in pop culture. Early in the film, the drone appears very robotic and moves linearly in and out of the doorway scanning side to side for life forms. So this is less like a drone and comparable to what is currently being used to map underground mining environments — essentially a laser scanner at the end of a long pole. 

Not sure what kind of propulsion system it’s using, since it’s impressively large. Maybe it is just attached to a pole? This is looking less like a drone and more like a puppet. But then again, you could say the same about tele-remote robots. Obviously the blue laser is likely for effect and would be invisible even in future mapping tech (we hope). Also, why is there smoke in the room? Isn’t this a spaceship?? I have so many questions.

#9 — DJI Mavic 2 Zoom & Matrice M210 in Bad Boys for Life (2019)

DJI Mavic 2 Zoom equipped with facial recognition

How about that! This is the only film on our list that actually features some DJI airframes, including the Mavic 2 Zoom and the Matrice m210. Although it does have two rifles mounted to it (which is completely ludicrous and dangerous).

Early in the film, the police launch a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom as a surveillance drone to scope out a potential arms sale. The drone is equipped with some infrared sensors, facial recognition, and apparently the ability to hover completely silently 20ft away from the bad guys. While these might seem far-fetched there’s no telling what kinds of capabilities you can add onto a drone with a police budget, and we’re already seeing drones like these being marketed. 

The most absurd drone representation we’ve ever seen

Later in the film, they launch a Matrice M210 out of the floor during a shootout scene and it’s being piloted via remote control which has a handheld display and VR goggles for some reason! Kudos to the pilot for being able to navigate in such an insane environment, but seeing a drone used in this way is pretty gut-wrenching for us. We build drones to keep people out of harm’s way, and not just the operator. So even though this film uses realistic drones, we have to doc some serious points for a lack of creativity and resorting to senseless violence.

#8 — Drone Airplane from Stealth (2005)

Call-sign Tinman with some seriously impressive moves

Even though we mainly deal in quadrotor aerial autonomy, we wanted to throw a fixed-wing into the mix. The film Stealth deals with a bunch of top tier Navy pilots getting antsy that some aerial AI might steal their jobs. But not to worry! The drone gets hit by lightning which “rewires” it’s AI somehow and it goes rogue, needing the best pilots around to save the day. Classic. 

On its own, the fixed-wing drone sports some remarkably high levels of autonomy. It can orient itself at high altitude, track objects and make combat decisions on the fly, and it can talk! However, it’s laughable to think that a simple lightning strike could somehow rewrite it’s code to enable a self-awareness subroutine. A for effort, C- for programming prowess.

#7 — Arm-launched Kill Drones from Elysium (2013)

Sharlto Copley sporting a great beard in a gritty future

The film Elysium takes place over 130 years into our future, so it’s hard to nail down a real-world counterpart for a lot of this technology. In the film, Matt Damon gets dealt a deadly dose of radiation and is forced to don an exo-suit and escape to Elysium — a huge satellite orbiting Earth where all the rich people live forever — before he’s poisoned to death. 

There are a few “drones” in this film, but what caught our eye were these single-use killbots that are launched from the operator’s arm. They’re about the size of a half dollar and attach themselves to the intended target before detonating. Honestly, most of the technology in this film seems geared towards wanton mayhem and murder. What a fun future!

It’s wildly impressive that an autonomous “drone” could fit into such a small form factor. The propulsion system alone would take up most of that space, not to mention the explosives needed. Though I guess you wouldn’t need a huge battery, so you can save weight there. The miniaturization of IMUs and flight controllers would be key to making these in the real world. Maybe we’re on the cusp of surpassing Moore’s Law. A leap that big would explain how these mercenaries were able to shrink their tech so small. 

(Again we should remind everyone that autonomous aerial robots should never be used to track down or hurt your enemies.)

#6 — Mysterio’s Drone Swarm in Spiderman: Far from Home (2019)

Jake Gyllenhaal goes from hero to headache in the latest installment of the MCU

First off, SPOILERS! Of all the drones we looked at for this article, Mysterio’s drones in the latest Spiderman are the only ones to exhibit swarming behavior. In the film, he uses them to create effects by projecting some kind of holograms that he can control. 

LOTS of artistic licensing was used to create the effects for these drones. In recent years Intel, among others, have demonstrated large scale drone light shows with a synchronized fleet of 1000+ drones. Because these drones remain outdoors, their synchronization relies heavily on GPS but it is a bigger stretch to deploy such a demonstration in an indoor space without more sophisticated onboard sensors, beaconing, or fiducial system to maintain localization. 

A greater leap is the Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing – aka B.A.R.F. – which the drones employ to generate a rich holographic projection and present an alternate reality. While we do have recent examples of drone swarms being deployed at large scale events for coordinated light shows, they’re a long way away from hyper-realistic holograms that can destroy whole city blocks. 

Finally, the most improbable element of the effect is stealth. Hundreds of drones flying overhead are going to sound like a hundred lawnmowers hovering above your head – no “Peter tingle” needed.

#5 — Support Drone from Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

A “support drone” launches from K’s car to map his environment

Quick sidebar: why do the Blade Runner movies always have the coolest jackets??? Anyway, the car-based drone in Blade Runner 2049 controlled by K (Ryan Gosling) launches from the top of his vehicle at the touch of a button and maps an entire area, above and underground. It’s pretty impressive tech considering it’s … checks notes … 29 years in the future.

Who know what kind of technological leaps are in store for us before then. 
They must have some new-world sensors on that drone because mapping that far that quickly isn’t possible with today’s tech. Being able to detect a box buried underground and also being able to see a body inside … that’s impressive. The film also took some liberties with the “zoom” function on all their devices. It wasn’t drone-based but still left us scratching our heads.

Future tech has some insane pinch-to-zoom capabilities

#4 — D.W.A.R.F.S. from Marvel’s: Agents of Shield (2013)

One of the DWARFS scanning a crime scene for clues

The TV show spin-off of the popular Marvel movies, Agents of Shield, deploy some cleverly autonomous drones to help with their forensic investigations. Much like our own robots, these are controlled through a specialized tablet. However, each robot — according to the character Fitz, who designed them — is equipped with specialized sensors to gather specific information about a crime scene and relay that all back to the tablet for human analysis. 

This eight-pack of quadrotors are perhaps the most realistic depictions of autonomous drones we’ve seen in popular culture. Although you could technically call these robots a swarm, they don’t seem to display any swarming ability other than to be collecting information simultaneously. If they were to collaborate with some kind of shared mapping that would be closer to resembling where we’re at with current technology.

#3 — Security drones in Oblivion (2013)

A security drone from the 2013 film Oblivion giving Tom Cruise the stink eye

Now we’re talking! I think the drones in Oblivion might be the most realistic representation of futuristic aerial robots because they need constant maintenance. 😂 In the film, Tom Cruise lives in a wicked cool futuristic house and helps repair drones that are watching over massive machines converting seawater to resources for humanity’s last hope on Titan, Saturn’s moon, because Old Earth was attacked by aliens and mostly destroyed. 

The bots are equipped with an impressive amount of sensors and autonomy including smart facial recognition, volumetric exploration, and self-diagnostic capabilities. We especially like all the weird noises they make which seems to give them some kind of personality, throwing sass at Tom when he defies their orders. Our obvious complaints are that the scanning and mapping lasers are always visible thanks to movie magic. But most of our complaints can be ignored because (spoilers!) the drones were made by aliens.

#2 — ScanEagle from Captain Phillips (2013)

The US Navy deployed a ScanEagle drone to locate Captain Phillips

The drones that are used to follow Captain Phillips and his kidnapped crew are very much a thing. The ScanEagle (first called the SeaScan) was initially designed to collect weather data and help local fishermen scan for schools of tuna. The drone is GPS-enabled and equipped with high-resolution cameras and low-level tracking autonomy. It’s mainly used for tracking ships at a distance until the Navy can swoop in with a faster ship and make an arrest. 

While you’re scratching your head wondering why the Navy simply recreated a selfie drone, a ScanEagle system can fly for 30+ hours and costs ~$3.2 million.

#1 — The Pups in Prometheus (2012)

The Pups from Prometheus mapping an alien cave (just like our A3R!)

Not only are these drones plausible, it’s a miniaturized version of the technology we create at Exyn! Fun fact: our co-founder, Vijay Kumar, was consulted by Producers David Giler & Walter Hill for Prometheus because they wanted a realistic representation of where autonomous mapping technology is headed in the future. But you don’t need to spend a decade in hyper-sleep to see these pups, you can book a virtual demo today

The mapping happens super fast and is coordinated between the pups, but they don’t seem to have an obvious form of propulsion so the Exyn team assumed that they must be manipulating gravity in some way because of how quickly they take off and proceed on mission. They also emit a red laser that scans the cavity they’re passing through, however this is likely cosmetic. Our LiDAR scans are invisible to the naked eye and this was likely done to walk the audience through how the pups achieved their mapping. We think mapping in 2093 will be as invisible as it is today.

These are just some of our favorite drones in pop culture, but we’re sure there’s more we missed. If you have some favorites we didn’t include, let us know on our social media! And if you want to help us create some futuristic aerial autonomy today you’re in luck, we’re hiring for a variety of positions on our careers page.

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