Early feedback has shown that drones have captured the attention of many consumers and media outlets at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and with reason. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have evolved rapidly in recent years, especially since making the leap from military technology to consumer gadgetry. Recently, it’s been suggested that this technology could be useful for a myriad of business opportunities, from food delivery to real estate photography to filming movies.
However, the technology has been evolving more quickly than current federal airspace guidelines on the subject, which has proved to be an obstacle blocking the development of drones for commercial and other purposes. Today, we take a look at current drone technologies, looking back briefly at the military history of UAVs and discuss some thoughts about their potential as a recreational and business tool. We also look at concerns that have been inspired by a growing number of drones buzzing above us.
The Early Military Days of Drone Development
Most readers will not be surprised to hear that UAV development began in earnest due to the military applications of drone use. The United States military continues a multi-million dollar investment strategy for the development of drone technologies after the use of UAVs grew in prominence over the past decade or so from combat operations in the Middle East. It may be intriguing to note, however, the many long decades of drone development as well as the other countries involved in creating drones for military purposes.
Unmanned aircraft that can be wirelessly and remotely controlled were first seen in the days leading up to World War II by two countries that would come to be major players in that conflict. Both the Royal Navy of Great Britain and the U.S. military developed UAVs that were radio-controlled and used for gunnery practice. After World War II, America took the reins on the production of drones for military purposes, using them for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering in Vietnam.
After the Vietnam War, a number of American drones were transferred to the Israeli government for use in that country’s military endeavours. The use of drones by Israel to photograph and monitor enemy troops had been in place since 1969 and they were used in surveillance missions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel was the main country responsible for UAV developments until the late 1980s, when the Pentagon purchased some Israeli drones which were soon used in Gulf War operations.
The weapons capabilities that have become synonymous with military drones weren’t actually developed until the months just before 9/11. In February 2001, the first successful tests of Predator drones firing missiles at targets were completed by the U.S. Air Force. Drone strikes have been ordered to kill leaders of terrorist groups for years after the 9/11 attacks, resulting in a range of successes and failures in military operations. As of October 2014, programs for developing military UAVs were being pursued by Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
Recreational Drones and Their Commercial and Industrial Potential
The recreational drone spin-offs which have been grabbing more mainstream attention in recent months have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the past five years or so. Former WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson claims a pretty personal role in helping to encourage the growth of the burgeoning group of drone hobbyists, having built an early prototype himself in March 2007. He founded an online hobbyist community known as DIY Drones that included 26,000 members as of June 2012. Anderson also founded a company known as 3D Robotics which is focused on developing control systems for UAVs.
In 2014, at least one research firm indicated that the market for small drones under 20 pounds would eclipse $1 billion in sales that year and would experience incredible growth for years to come. Drones have become a much more affordable gadget recently with many models available for under $500; some low-end models are selling for less than $100.
UAV enthusiasts have found plenty of applications for using these gadgets to capture photos and videos of some very interesting situations, some of which are too dangerous or remote for the videographer to personally visit and explore. As drone technologies become more complex, however, their ability to perform work in unsafe situations will become a major part of their continued presence in our world.
There are a number of dangerous jobs for which UAVs may be used to complete in the future. Firefighting, especially those situations where large forest fires must be contained, could become easier thanks to drones that can survey the path of the fire without a huge wingspan that can actually stoke the flames, which is sometimes the case with helicopters. Survivor rescue missions for natural and man-made disasters could also be performed by drones, protecting the safety of rescue workers as they search for the living. With the proper sensors, drones could even be used to measure volcanic activity and extreme weather conditions.
The video capture capabilities of UAVs have been suggested for a variety of industrial purposes. Inspections of power lines, railways and farmland, all of which is tedious and time-consuming, can be performed much more quickly with the use of drones. Efficiencies in farm work could also be realized by monitoring an area with drones to find specific areas of land that may need more watering or pesticides, reducing waste that may come from applying pesticides or watering areas that do not need it.
Amazon’s decision to invest in its Amazon Prime Air program to create a delivery system utilizing drones received a lot of media attention when it was announced last year. But that’s simply one of many proposed uses for UAVs. Within ten years, the expectation is that nearly 32,000 drones will be flying for commercial operations worldwide. One industry trade group pegs the potential economic impact of UAVs within the United States at $13.7 billion within three years if FAA regulations allow commercial drone use. The technical equipment required to operate this machinery has also been reducing in complexity and there are now drones that can be operated through smartphone apps. When it comes to monitoring areas, delivering items or enhancing telecommunications (i.e.: the use of drones at events to improve cellular service), it seems that there are very few things that UAVs cannot accomplish.
Concerns Over Safety Slowing the Progress of Drones
In our coverage of the growth of robotic technologies, published last year, we noted a developmental trend that is shared between the two tech sectors: both are being developed to handle jobs that are too dangerous or very tedious for human workers. But much like robotics, an increase of drones has created its own set of fears, some of which are grounded in legitimate concerns regarding public safety.
Many drones don’t weigh more than a couple of pounds but there are larger models which can reach 50 pounds or more. If the flying mechanisms on these products become damaged or fail in some way, the UAV effectively turns into a projectile hurtling to the ground below. It hasn’t happened often but drones have been lethal in the past, often to the very people operating those gadgets. In September 2013, a man was decapitated in a Brooklyn park by his own drone; this New York Times story about the incident discusses a few other previous cases of UAV fatalities.
Air traffic safety is a much larger concern among federal regulators and drone operators alike. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported almost 200 incidents of UAVs navigating too close to manned aircraft between March and December of last year. The FAA has some regulations in place for unmanned aerial vehicles: they must be kept below 400 feet, remain within sight of the operator and cannot fly close to airports and air traffic. However, these are the same regulations put in place for model aircraft which have remained generally unchanged since 1981. The use of drones for commercial purposes is still largely prohibited in American airspace.
Currently, the FAA is involved in a joint partnership with some important UAV industry groups to implement a safety campaign that distributes important information to drone owners. Both the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Small UAV Coalition have agreed to distribute safety pamphlets at industry events and are encouraging manufacturers to include safety information with their products. This year, the FAA should be releasing updated guidelines for UAV operation on units weighing up to 55 pounds which should provide some guidance on the use of drones for commercial flights. There’s even some speculation that the FAA may even consider requiring drone operators to obtain a pilot’s license, which would be a huge added cost.
Crowd security has also been an area of concern regarding the increased use of drones. Unauthorized drones in the airspace over events, especially sporting events, have become an increasing nuisance. The safety concerns posed by the operation of drones by amateurs become exacerbated in a crowded environment, where the risk of human injury from a crash is dramatically increased.
There are some drone enthusiasts who welcome increased regulation in this field of technology, specifically for the establishment of safety guidelines. Some owners have banded together to form groups dedicated to creating and adhering to a set of safety guidelines in an attempt to improve public perception of their hobby or commercial pursuit.
Current Technologies in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
We’ve come across some interesting technologies in UAVs and drones in recent months, especially in our Companies We Follow coverage of Disney and Foxconn. To close our look at drone developments, we wanted to take a quick survey of patents recently issued in this technological field.
The aircraft developer Boeing, which we’ve featured before in the Companies We Follow series, had a couple of patents in this field which it received over the past few months. Methods of automating control for fleets of UAVs in a way that achieves computational efficiency is disclosed and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8914182, issued under the title Network of Unmanned Vehicles. The patent claims a computer system for use in an unmanned vehicle capable of use in a cooperative network of UAVs; the computer system has an executive level for controlling propulsion and steering and an automatic decision level that communicates with a ground control station and other UAVs. This delegates some of the decision making responsibilities regarding drone missions to the computational components included on the drone itself. Another Boeing innovation regarding drones, reflected in U.S. Patent No. 8798922, entitled Determination of Flight Path for Unmanned Aircraft in Event of In-Flight Contingency, attempts to answer some of the safety concerns raised in this article. This patent claims a method that involves performing operations of a computer system onboard a UAV that determines whether a current flight path should be changed and changing the flight path accordingly. This innovation allows a drone to deviate safely from its flight path to respond to an engine out or jamming situation that forces a landing.
Safety in flying UAVs is also the focus of the technology protected by U.S. Patent No. 8838289, which is titled System and Method for Safely Flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Civilian Airspace. The system claimed here includes a ground station equipped with a synthetic vision system, a UAV supporting the synthetic vision system, a remote pilot operating the ground station, a communications link between the UAV and the ground station and a system onboard the UAV capable of detecting the position of nearby aircraft. The invention, developed by solo inventor Jed Margolin of Virginia City Highlands, NV, attempts to establish the type of “sense and avoid” system being sought to improve drone safety and ease restrictions leading to commercial use of drones in civilian airspace.
Aerospace developer Honeywell International is also in on the drone development act with a couple of its own patents. The improvement of navigation capabilities to support the mid-air refueling of unmanned aircraft is at the center of U.S. Patent No. 8868256, which is titled Relative Navigation for Aerial Refueling of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The patent protects a system for navigating a UAV relative to a tanker aircraft for aerial refueling with a processor that calculates a plurality of relative navigation solutions between a UAV and a tanker aircraft and identifying solutions within a certain threshold. The use of drones for collecting environmental hazard information has also been developed by Honeywell and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8820672, entitled Environmental Sampling With an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The patent claims a ducted fan for a vehicle take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle that includes an annular duct surrounding the fan into which a working fluid is drawn to generate thrust that propels the VTOL and a fluid sample device with a sensor that detects a quality characteristic of a fluid that contacts the sensor. This system could be used to detect environmental hazards in water and other fluid sources without requiring a human operator to travel to the hazard area.