Innovation

Google may soon take conference calls to the sky with video conferencing drones

On Tuesday, Google was awarded a patent for a quadcopter with cameras and screens. But could it replace traditional video conference calls?

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In one depiction of Google's telepresence drone, a screen dangles off the front while a projector sits at the rear.

Image: Google

Conference calls may soon take flight, literally: On Tuesday, Google was awarded a patent for a video conferencing drone, complete with cameras, microphones, and projection screens.

While current video conferencing solutions allow multiple users to interface electronically with both audio and video, each user typically has to be sitting in a conference room or in front of their laptop. With Google's video conference drone system, users could have more flexibility, and be able to move around different locations while on a conference call.

"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," the patent stated.

SEE: Quick glossary: Drones (Tech Pro Research)

The drone could either be powered by a cell phone that sits in the drone and connects it to the internet, or it could be paired remotely with another device, the patent stated.

Telepresence robots used for remote office workers are already on the market. However, these tend to be cumbersome, and cannot go down stairs or travel on rough terrain. Google's device could potentially follow a person around while they are on a call in any type of location.

"This patent is an extension of the current telepresence robot concept, that provides a new mode of transportation," said Gartner analyst Mark Hung. "In some ways it's more flexible, because it could go up and down stairs and move more easily around obstacles."

While telepresence robots that roll around the office work great inside four walls, "this drone concept would allow architect structural engineers to inspect a construction site without having to leave their office," said David Chao, chief strategy officer at audio and web conferencing service provider ReadyTalk. "It does not change communication in and of itself, but it allows that remote person to examine things in a really meaningful way."

Chao said he doesn't see drone conferencing used in an average office. Specific challenges to the concept may include noise from the drone, and its short battery life. But, they could be very useful in performing work in difficult-to-reach places, he added. "The smarter the machines, the less often a person has to do things that are dangerous to them," Chao said.

Once drones were built with video capabilities, many people used them for inspecting energy plants and the like. Adding call capabilities would significantly increase the potential for more field applications, and getting better information across.

The patent comes on the heels of last week's White House meeting, in which officials announced a series of initiatives to promote integrating drones into the daily lives of consumers and businesses across the US. While the current regulations do not allow the automated, long-distance delivery flying proposed by Google and others, Google's drone delivery service Project Wing will begin conducting experiments at an FAA-approved drone test site, the White House said.

Consumers shouldn't expect to see the new conference drones on the shelf any time soon—as with all patent applications, it mostly tells us that Google is exploring the concept, rather than definitely creating it.

"People are still exploring the best ways to remotely project themselves and make collaboration more effective," Hung said. "This is probably more of a conceptual thing than something that will be commercially available in the next two to five years."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. On Tuesday, Google secured a patent for a telecommunications drone to be used for video conferencing. The device could give users more flexibility, and allow them to conference in without being connected to a laptop, the patent stated.
  2. While telepresence robots for remote office workers are already on the market, they tend to be difficult to maneuver and cannot go down stairs. The conference drones could bring video to hard-to-reach places.
  3. Telecommunications experts foresee video conferencing drones being used for remote inspections and work that might be dangerous for humans.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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