Rise of the Drones
In one of my recent LinkedIn posts, I dropped a link to another post about drones. The suggestion in that article was that in a very short space of time we have moved (in non-military applications) from drones as expensive toys, to drones with some serious capability and the prospect of having some innovative applications to modern day problems.Read More
I’m certainly one of the people who believe that we are currently standing at the precipice of a major technical revolution in this area. The world of drones has the potential to open up innumerable possibilities and real world applications. Media coverage would suggest startups are taking full advantage since drones are now easily accessible, affordable, relatively simple to fly and have the capability to carry meaningful payloads due to advancements in tech miniaturisation. There are now even books available on the subject.
The FAA estimates that more than one million people received drones as Xmas presents this year, and one can only assume that this figure is set to rise next Xmas as drone popularity increases and hobbyists as well as entrepreneurs start investigating the technologies required to power, fly and guide drones. Additionally, the FAA now requires that all drone owners register their aircraft before flying them in US airspace. For sure, this approach will be adopted here in the UK as more UAV flyers take to the air and risk colliding with other aircraft in restricted airspace.
So, how did it all come about, why drones and why now? I have alluded to it above (tech miniaturisation). Simply, several incremental advancements in technology, mostly focused on either cost reduction, weight reduction (often both), or an increase in access to a particular component have resulted in the ability to produce decent performing drones, at a price that won’t melt the credit card.
A great example of this kind of research can be seen at The University of Glasgow where an ex-colleague of mine (Dr David Anderson) who supervises the Micro Air Systems Technology (MAST) laboratory has been using 3-D printing to design and build miniature UAVs for “research and investigation of small-scale autonomous vehicles and their associated technologies”.
It’s also no surprise that smart phone tech has played its part. Low cost accelerometers and gyroscopes been available for years, both of which are necessary for stabilisation, attitude and referencing systems. Satellite technology too, has improved. The Russian made Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is system that works alongside Global Positioning System (GPS) to provide position information to compatible devices.
With an additional 24 satellites to utilize, GLONASS compatible receivers can acquire satellites up to 20% faster than devices that rely on GPS alone. There is no coincidence that the world’s market leader in low-cost, civilian drone manufacturer, DJI has GLONASS capability in it’s most popular drones.
What are the applications?
You don’t have to look too far to see that there is simply a plethora of potential applications. National Geographic has a great article on 5 surprising uses of drones: hurricane hunting, 3-D mapping, wildlife protection, farming and search and rescue.
Of course Amazon have been talking about drone delivery for a while now and in Mumbai, Francesco’s Pizzeria has successfully delivered a pizza using a drone. Techworld lists a further 16 uses in our day-to-day lives from mail delivery, through oil platform inspection to construction, media and government. It’s difficult to see where drones couldn’t play a useful part to some degree in our lives.
An exponential-type rise in production and adoption of drones and associated technology I think is a high probability. A whole new infrastructure will have to be put in place to facilitate drone usage in industry. Drone ports could become commonplace. Houses may have drone landing pads and/or capture and secure systems built onto the rooftops. Parents might hire drone firms to keep watch on their kids (or spouses) from a safe and invisible distance. Undoubtedly UK air law will have to set regulations and the CCA already offers a UAV licence which is currently required before drones can be used commercially.
Conferences such as Interdrone are springing up all over the place. There is literally a buzz in the air in tech communities and for the first time in a few years there is again something to be super excited about in civilian aerospace.
Forums and sub-reddits, already have thousands of enthusiastic contributors. Instead of build-your-own PC, it’s now build-your-own drone. Geeks are now digging into flight controllers, rotor configurations and writing apps for real-world vehicles and real-life applications. Drone Meetups are showcasing new models and awesome flying skills. Hopefully a new generation of post-millenials, tech-kids will grow up with aspirations of flight and aerospace engineering. It would be great to see UK businesses at the forefront of this new mini-revolution.
The rise of the drones is upon us. Most likely they won’t make the world any safer or more dangerous; but they might just change the rules of the game.