Definition

drone (unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV)

Contributor(s): Alan Earls, Sharon Shea, Ivy Wigmore

A drone, in technological terms, is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASes). Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems, working in conjunction with onboard sensors and GPS.

In the recent past, UAVs were most often associated with the military, where they were used initially for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and then, more controversially, as weapons platforms. Drones are now also used in a wide range of civilian roles ranging from search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring and firefighting, to personal drones and business drone-based photography, as well as videography, agriculture and even delivery services.

The history of drones

Many trace the history of drones to 1849 Italy, when Venice was fighting for its independence from Austria. Austrian soldiers attacked Venice with hot-air, hydrogen- or helium-filled balloons equipped with bombs.

The first pilotless radio-controlled aircraft were used in World War I. In 1918, the U.S. Army developed the experimental Kettering Bug, an unmanned "flying bomb" aircraft, which was never used in combat.

The first generally used drone appeared in 1935 as a full-size retooling of the de Havilland DH82B "Queen Bee" biplane, which was fitted with a radio and servo-operated controls in the back seat. The plane could be conventionally piloted from the front seat, but generally it flew unmanned and was shot at by artillery gunners in training. The term drone dates to this initial use, a play on the "Queen Bee" nomenclature.

UAV technology continued to be of interest to the military, but it was often too unreliable and costly to put into use. After concerns about the shooting down of spy planes arose, the military revisited the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles. Military use of drones soon expanded to play roles in dropping leaflets and acting as spying decoys.

Military drone use solidified in 1982 when the Israeli Air Force used UAVs to wipe out the Syrian fleet with minimal loss of Israeli forces. The Israeli UAVs acted as decoys, jammed communication and offered real-time video reconnaissance.

Drones have continued to be a mainstay in the military, playing critical roles in intelligence, surveillance and force protection, artillery spotting, target following and acquisition, battle damage assessment and reconnaissance, as well as for weaponry.

Modern drone history

A Wall Street Journal report claims widespread drone use began in 2006 when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency introduced UAVs to monitor the the U.S. and Mexico border.

In late 2012, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, retired to dedicate himself to his drones company, 3D Robotics, Inc. (3DR). The company, which started off specializing in hobbyist personal drones, now markets its UAVs to aerial photography and film companies, construction, utilities and telecom businesses, and public safety companies, among others.

In late 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan to use commercial drones for delivery activities. However, in July 2016, Reno-based startup Flirtey beat Amazon to the punch, successfully delivering a package to a resident in Nevada via a commercial drone. Other companies have since followed suit. For example, in September 2016, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University began a test with Project Wing, a unit of Google owner Alphabet, Inc., to make deliveries, starting with burritos produced at a local Chipotle restaurant. Then in December 2016, Amazon delivered its first Prime Air package in Cambridge, England. In March of 2017, it demonstrated a Prime Air drone delivery in California.


Flying burrito delivery at Virginia
Tech? Chipotle's testing it.

Drone education is also expanding; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, long a training ground for the aviation industry, now offers a Bachelor of Science in unmanned systems applications, a Master of Science in unmanned systems and an undergraduate minor in unmanned aerial systems.

Commercial and enterprise drone applications

The use of drones outside the military has grown tremendously over the past decade. Beyond surveillance and delivery applications, UAVs are used in drone journalism, search and rescue, disaster response, asset protection, wildlife monitoring, firefighting, communications relay, healthcare and agriculture.

The integration of drones and internet of things (IoT) technology has created numerous enterprise use cases. Drones working with on-ground IoT sensor networks can help agricultural companies monitor land and crops; energy companies survey power lines and operational equipment; and insurance companies monitor properties for claims and policies.

A 2015 experiment in Austin, Texas, showed how drones can potentially "connect the dots" using IoT. A security tech company teamed up with a drone startup to hunt for Zigbee beacons to try to provide an overview of what IoT networks were present in residential and business areas of the city. The companies reported that the results were quick and instructive.

From logistics to agriculture to security, unmanned aerial vehicles and IoT are frequently part of the same discussion; offering a component in ubiquitous connectivity and interactivity.

Types of drones

Drone platforms have two main types: rotor, including single-rotor or multi-rotor (such as tricopters, quadcopters, hexacopters and octocoptors), or fixed-wing, which include the hybrid VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) drones that don't require runways.

Drones can be categorized as either personal/hobbyist or commercial/enterprise.

Drones can be equipped with a number of sensors, including distance sensors (ultrasonic, laser, lidar), time-of-flight sensors, chemical sensors, and stabilization and orientation sensors, among others. Visual sensors offer still or video data, with RGB sensors collecting standard visual red, green and blue wavelengths, and multispectral sensors collecting visible and non-visible wavelengths, such as infrared and ultraviolet. Accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, barometers and GPS are also common drone features.

For example, thermal sensors can be integral in surveillance or security applications, such as livestock monitoring or heat-signature detection. Hyperspectral sensors can help identify minerals and vegetation, and are ideal for use in crop health, water quality and surface composition.

Many personal drones are now available for consumer use, offering HD video or still camera capabilities, or to simply fly around. These drones often weigh anywhere from less than a pound to 10 pounds.

Stronger, more capable drones are also available for use in commercial settings. For example, Insitu, a Boeing company, offers the ScanEagle, which has a 10-foot wingspan and weighs 35 pounds. The company also builds the Integrator, an 80-pound aircraft with a 16-foot wingspan. Insitu drones do not take off from runways, as an airplane would; rather they are VTOL as they take off and are recovered from the company's SkyHook launchers. Sensors available include electro-optic imagers, mid-wave infrared imagers, infrared markers and laser rangefinders.

In 2018, Boeing announced it had prototyped an unmanned electric VTOL cargo air vehicle (CAV) capable of transporting up to a 500-pound payload.

Tethered drones are another option, though with the obvious limitation that they are physically tethered to a base station. Certain tethered drones can solve the challenge many drones face when it comes to power supply if the tether provides a direct power supply. The Safe-T tethering station for drones from Elistair, for example, offers 2.5 kW power and can fly to heights of more than 200 feet, with data transfer rates of up to 200 Mb/s.

Commercial drone manufacturers include:

  • 3D Robotics
  • DJI
  • Elistair
  • Hubsan
  • Identified Technologies
  • Insitu
  • Measure
  • Parrot
  • PrecisionHawk
  • Yuneec

UAV reception and drone regulations

Rapid adoption of drones over the past decade has sparked a number of privacy, security and safety complaints and concerns. From a privacy standpoint, voyeurs and paparazzi have used drones to obtain images of individuals in their homes or other locations once assumed to be private. Drones have also been deployed in areas deemed potentially unsafe, such as urban areas and near airports.

Growth in commercial and personal drones has also created safety concerns, namely midair collisions and loss of drone control. Specific concerns about drones flying too close to commercial aircraft have prompted calls for regulation.

While many countries have established UAV regulations, others have not. As drone usage grows in popularity, laws are continually changing. Before using a drone commercially or personally, it is critical to check the laws of the country in which they are being operated.

In China, for example, any drone flying higher than 400 feet requires a license from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Drones weighing in at more than 15 pounds also require a license, and no-fly zones must be adhered to.

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) restricts drones from flying above 500 feet. Additionally, any drone weighing more than a half pound must be registered with the CAA. The organization has also published its "Dronecode:"

  • Don't fly near airports or airfields
  • Remember to stay below 400 feet and at least 150 feet away from buildings and people
  • Observe your drone at all times
  • Never fly near aircraft
  • Enjoy responsibly

Until 2006, the use of commercial drones were illegal under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which said non-commercial flights below 400 feet were permitted only if operators followed Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, published in 1981.

In 2005, the FAA issued its first guidelines on UAVs and later issued its first commercial drone permit in 2006. A drone operation policy was then published in 2007. Later, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was released, which included Section 333, under which the U.S. Secretary of Transportation could approve commercial drone use on a case-by-case basis.

By 2014, only two companies in the U.S. were allowed to operate commercial drones. In 2015, an interim FAA policy governing the use of small drones for certain commercial uses under 200 feet was released, and the FAA announced it had approved more than 1,000 applications for commercial drones and continues to approve at a rate of approximately 50 applications per week. The next year, the FAA further relaxed its restrictions, and under its Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulation, Part 107, issued 3,100 drone permits in 2016 alone.

Part 107 places limits on autonomous or semi-autonomous drone operation. Among other things, the FAA specifically mandates:

  • Unmanned aircraft must remain within visual line-of-sight of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS, or, alternately within VLOS of the visual observer;
  • Drones must at all times remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft unaided by any device other than corrective lenses;
  • UAVs may not operate over anyone not directly participating in the operation, under a covered structure or inside a covered stationary vehicle;
  • Daylight-only operations, or civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting;
  • Must yield right of way to other aircraft.

On October 5, 2018, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed, which establishes new conditions for recreational use of drones. FAA rules differ for personal or commercial drone use. For example, a Remote Pilot Certificate issued by the FAA is required to fly drones commercially and commercial UAVs must be registered and flown at or under 100 mph.

Drone use laws also vary by state. For example, Alaska laws limit the use of drones in law enforcement, including how and whether they can save drone-captured images and video. Cities and towns with more than one public park in Arizona must permit drone use in at least one of them. A Minnesota law requires commercial drone operators to pay a commercial operations license and hold drone insurance.

Future outlook

Predictions for the drone market are both aggressive and optimistic.

 A 2016 Business Insider BI Intelligence report forecasted drone revenues to reach $12 billion in 2021, with the growth of enterprise drone use to outpace the consumer drone sector in both shipments and revenues by 2021, reaching 29 million shipments worldwide.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has valued the drone-based businesses service market at more than $127 billion, with the top industries being infrastructure at $45.2 billion, agriculture at $32.5 billion and transportation at $13.0 billion.

In terms of economic impact, the association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts the drone industry will create more than 100,000 U.S. jobs and add $82 billion to the U.S. economy by 2025.

Goldman Sachs predicts a $100 billion market for drones between 2016 and 2020, with the military making up the bulk of it with $70 billion spending. Consumer drones will take a $17 billion share of that market, with commercial and civil government use making up $13 billion. Breaking that down, the construction industry is expected to spend $11.164 million on applications such as surveying, building inspection and monitoring, and agriculture at $5.922 million on applications including health monitoring, soil scanning and yield estimates. Other top industries include insurance claims, offshore oil and gas, and refining, U.S. police, fire, Coast Guard and Customer and Border Protection, journalism, real estate and utilities.

This was last updated in October 2018

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