Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier

Our extended program series asks, “What impact will drones have on our future?”

Created and curated by swissnex Boston, Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier imagines the changes coming to our lives through the increasing adoption and implementation of professional drone technology.  Together with leading experts from Switzerland and all over the world, we are addressing the changes these machines and their associated technologies will bring to our global society.

Explore the Series Through Our Photo Recap
Aerial Entertainment: Launching into the Drone Frontier at SXSW

With a network of 150+ industry experts spanning 60 different organizations, swissnex Boston spearheaded a novel effort to position Switzerland internationally as a world-leading drone ecosystem. In March 2018, they launched “ Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier ” at South by Southwest (SXSW) with a panel on drones in art and entertainment. The sold-out talk featured Verity Studios , who produced drone shows for Drake, Metallica, and Cirque du Soleil.

Aerial Humanitarians: From Boston to Geneva

What are the capabilities of aerial AI for humanitarians? How have humanitarian drone interventions changed in recent years and what amendments need to be made to the existing code of conduct to stay current? In May 2018, swissnex Boston partnered with WeRobotics and hosted two Experts Meetings exploring just that. The experience was so successful, it led to an encore in Geneva in December in partnership with the Geneva Science-Policy Interface .

Aerial Cooperation: Building Capacity in Robotics and Presenting at the UN Science Technology and Innovation Forum

Next on the agenda: a fly-by at the United Nations in New York City for the Science, Technology and Innovation Forum, where swissnex Boston, with the Swiss and Tanzanian Missions, Drone Adventures , and Zanzibari stakeholders, presented a model of North-South cooperation that led to the world’s largest drone mapping project, the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative , building capacity in aerial robotics and improving urban planning, environmental monitoring, coastal management, and more.

Aerial Showcase: 2-Day Public Exhibition in
Downtown Boston

In October, swissnex Boston brought together around 70 partners from 40 international organizations for a 2-day showcase of the drone frontier . With a flying cage for demos, workshops, and public talks, swissnex captured the incredible breadth of the Swiss drone industry: from construction to oceanography, agriculture to delivery. The event even catalyzed the birth of Volaly , Switzerland’s newest drone startup.

Looking Ahead

“It was important for us to have a meaningful and tangible impact with this series,” said Jonas Brunschwig, Project Leader for Academic Relations. “Starting from Switzerland’s drone prowess, which we began exploring in 2016, we sparked connections between key actors across disciplines and continents that are now taking a life of their own. Next up we’ll be diving into urban air mobility and drone regulations.”

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Photo Credits: Verity Studios and David L. Ryan/Boston Globe


In leading this series, it has been key for us to leverage our expansive network to convene experts across disciplines, organizations, and continents. These connections lead to meaningful new partnerships and initiatives that push the drone frontier forward. Here are a few of our early outcomes:


swissnex Boston, WeRobotics, and MIT Solve curated an expert's meeting on the latest developments around the Code of Conduct and specific guidelines, particularly those on conflict sensitivity and the draft guidelines around the use of humanitarian cargo drones. The development of protocols and guidelines to inform the safe, responsible and effective use of drones in disaster zones, started in earnest in 2014 through the work of the Humanitarian UAV Network.
Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct
Experts Meeting / swissnex Boston, WeRobotics, and MIT Solve
"Events like this [Aerial Futures @ HUBweek] allow entrepreneurs to really network and talk about their ideas and collaborate in the future. A lot of us operate in what seems like a small bubble because we know our industries but it’s hard to see what’s going on in the drone space outside of those. So these events really bring those together and allow us to see what’s a value-added service that we could offer each other in our portfolio to our customers and it’s very useful."
Adam Fine
Co-founder & CTO / Dropcopter
“The diversity that we heard [at the event] was really remarkable. We heard about biology. We heard about city planning. We heard about construction technology and apple orchards. And you could say we heard about drones but in reality what we heard about was seven different global problems that we’re all trying to fix where this application of drones is making some really interesting headway for us.”
Katie Stebbins
Vice President, Economic Development / University of Massachusetts


If you have questions or would like to get involved, contact our Academic Relations team to learn more.


Upcoming Events

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Series Events

Take a look back at our previous events in this series.

Aerial Futures: The Indoor Inspection Frontier with Flyability

We joined forces with Swiss drone company Flyability to showcase a live demo of the frontier of drone inspection technology as part of ouf ongoing exploration of Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier. Flyability drones are designed from the ground up to endure collisions and navigate cluttered and dangerous environments such as pipelines, mines and nuclear reactors. In addition to industrial monitoring applications, Flyability drones can also assist rescue crews after natural disasters.

Swiss Touch in Aerial Futures: Digitizing Airspace

This invitation-only event examined Swiss contributions to drone regulations and looked forward to the future of airspace digitalization. In partnership with the Swiss Embassy, the Swiss Touch Campaign, and the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation, we shed light on Switzerland as an innovating country not just in drone technologies and applications, but also in a forward-thinking approach to regulation. The country, which has been a gateway to European policymaking and regulatory processes, now seeks to cooperate with important US stakeholders with an interest in drone regulations at the governmental, industrial, and civil society levels to create an innovative ecosystem for drones.

Aerial Futures: The Third Dimension | Public Event

A public event at Harvard GSD examined the lower sky as a site of mobility

Increasing congestion and advances in autonomous technology are set to transform how we move around our cities. Many are now looking to the sky — the third dimension — as an expansive space for new kinds of mobility. Autonomous flying vehicles, such as cargo drones and flying taxis, have the capacity to disrupt how we move goods and passengers around urban space. Responding to these real-world changes, AERIAL FUTURES: The Third Dimension examines Urban Air Mobility (UAM), asking how scalable and on-demand UAM models could reduce road traffic, pollution, accidents and the strain on existing public transport networks. Within these opportunities are also challenges to overcome: noise, community acceptance, safety, cyber security and seamless integration with existing aircraft operations. Boston and Switzerland have long understood the importance of connectivity and mobility. As world centers for tech research and design excellence, both locations are at the vanguard of urban mobility design. The presentations and panel discussed Design Interfaces, the UAM Marketplace and Regulatory Frameworks.

Watch our video for panelist interviews, expert insight and more.


Aerial Futures: The Third Dimension | Experts Meeting

In collaboration with the Swiss Touch campaign and AERIAL FUTURES, we invited over 30 experts from the fields of aviation, innovation, engineering, regulation, architecture, design and urban planning to join a multi-disciplinary conversation across dimensions on the future of our lower skies. In four sessions, the think tank explored the realms of policy, design, technology and business related to UAM. At the end of an intensive day, we were left with more questions than answers. The participants agreed on at least one common denominator: we’re really just at the beginning of our journey.

To preserve the conversations in the room and engage the participants, we collaborated with Graphic Recorder Mike Petitto of the Boston based design solutions company “Collective Next”. For each session, Mike captured the key insights and narratives in life drawings.

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You can also read our full recap of the event here.

Drones for Good – Humanitarian Actions from the Sky

What are the latest practical technological developments in the use of drones to support international aid efforts? How can policymakers, researchers, private actors and NGOs work together to maximize the benefits of these technologies while minimizing the potential risks?

Patrick Meier, PhD, Executive Director of not-for-profit organization WeRobotics, will illustrate some of the latest developments in this field through practical examples. Christian Simm, PhD, CEO of swissnex Boston, will then moderate a panel discussion with representatives from UN agencies, NGOs, and academia.

Experts Meeting: Aerial AI in the Context of International Aid and Development

The Geneva Science-Policy Interface, swissnex Boston, and WeRobotics are pleased to host an experts meeting on the use of drones and aerial AI applied to international aid and development efforts. This event is part of both swissnex Boston’s “Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier” and WeRobotics’s “Experts Meetings” series aimed at addressing pivotal issues facing the safe and effective deployment of drones for humanitarian aid, public health, sustainable development and nature conservation. The Geneva Chapter of this experts meeting will take stock of the very latest developments, opportunities and challenges in the application of AI, machine learning and computer vision to automatically analyze aerial imagery with respect to features of direct interest to the international aid and development community.

Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier @ HUBweek

With the support of Swiss Touch, we brought the Drone Frontier to Boston’s HUBWeek on October 8 and 9. Held at District Hall in Boston’s seaport area, we showcased some of the most exciting drone technologies and applications to a wide audience during the festival for the future co-founded by Harvard University, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Boston Globe. Our exhibition space included a “flying cage”, allowing for visitors to experience live drone demos.

Urban Planning with Drones in Africa

Part of the UN’s STI Forum 2018 in New York City

African countries are poised to join the Drone Frontier, with Rwanda leading the way in deploying country-wide commercial drone regulations, attracting investment and talent to advance the field. Others, like Tanzania, are following suit. In Zanzibar, authorities launched the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative (ZMI), which has successfully deployed small-scale drones to collect the data necessary to improve the planning process and is mapping the whole island with a precision 25 times superior to that of Google Maps. Projects like the ZMI are well-suited to be replicated elsewhere in Africa and develop the local capacity for the use of advanced robotics technologies and meet the increasing data processing needs.

Humanitarian Drones: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Opening with a keynote, Dr. Patrick Meier (WeRobotics) provided the crowd with a frank, first-hand overview of the humanitarian drone space since Typhoon Haiyan — a Category 5 Cyclone that devastated the Philippines in 2013. His talk focused on the most pressing current and future challenges vis-a-vis the responsible, coordinated and effective use of drones in humanitarian action. These include regulations, codes of conduct, complex emergencies, localization, turf wars, artificial intelligence and more. Patrick spoke directly from his first-hand operational experience in coordinating drone teams after major disasters and from the first-hand experience of WeRobotics and their global network Flying Labs. Following Patrick’s keynote, he was joined for a panel discussion with researcher Faine Greenwood (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative) and Jake Porway (founder of DataKind), moderated by Lily Bui, a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Experts Meeting Part 1: Code of Conduct on Humanitarian Drones

This gathering of thoughtleaders from the humanitarian and tech sectors focused on the “UAV Code of Conduct”. The development of protocols and guidelines to inform the safe, responsible and effective use of drones in disaster zones, started in earnest in 2014 through the work of the Humanitarian UAV Network. swissnex Boston, WeRobotics, and MIT Solve curated a conversation yesterday on the latest developments around the Code of Conduct and specific guidelines, particularly those on conflict sensitivity and the draft guidelines around the use of humanitarian cargo drones. Click here for a full summary of the discussion and the next steps developed towards the Code of Conduct (credit: our partner WeRobotics).

Experts Meeting Part 2: Aerial AI and Big Data in Humanitarian Action

We convened innovators from across the globe to discuss Aerial Artificial Intelligence in order to take stock of the very latest developments, opportunities and challenges in the application of AI, machine learning and computer vision to automatically analyze aerial imagery with respect to features of direct interest to the international aid and development community.
Read the summary from our partner WeRobotics here.

Drone Swarms in Art – SXSW 2018

Artists from the Zurich-based Verity Studios presented the advances they are making in bringing drone swarm technology to the world of art and performance. The panel from the world’s first Drone Costume Designer, Léa Pereyre, and Verity Studios Creative Director Bill Keays, surprised the packed audience with dazzling videos of drone swarms. As described in an op-ed published about the event in swissinfo, this was a totally new application of drone technology for most in the crowd and it left many of them amazed at the capabilities of the studio.


Learn more about the context that established the Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier here.


Icon image credit: City by Mochammad Kafi from the Noun Project