These days, you do not have to look hard or long online, or for that matter travel far from home, to encounter discussions or make sightings of aerial drones, or UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles. In this article, we will ask and attempt to answer the questions on more and more peoples’ minds: What is a drone?
We will take a look at the history, the technology, and the mystery surrounding these futuristic aircraft, and we’ll look at the characteristics of some of them to see if there might just be a drone in your future that is owned and operated by you.
What Is a Drone?
Simply, a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle or a seemingly pilotless aircraft. For the most part, it only seems pilotless because the vast majority of drones are remotely controlled by a human operator or controlled onboard via pre-programmed instructions. Basically, a drone is a robot aircraft.
The capabilities of that robot aircraft vary tremendously depending on its size, the sophistication of its technology, and its mission or purpose. A drone can be a robot spy or assassin operated by a national government (or its enemies), or it can be a cheap little toy flown by a child. And, it can be many things in between.
So, let’s take a look at some of those things and some of the reasons why drones are so in the news and on peoples’ minds.
Bees and Bombers
In discovering the answers to what is a drone, we won’t spend a lot of time on the history of drones, in part because that history is kind of depressing, since a lot of it is about war and, in part, because it is a lot more fun to discuss peaceful and profitable uses of drones, rather than how to use them to harm other people.
On the other hand, ignoring the downside or the dark side (dork side if you insist) of drones can be dangerous in itself. Unfortunately, right from the start, one of the first things that popped into (mainly) men’s heads about UAVs or drones was how great they could be if used to spy on and blow up one’s enemies.
One of the first examples of this was some fellow back in the 1860s who made UAV balloons equipped with a trap door on the bottom of the basket and plenty of explosives in the basket, and a timer was set to release them over an enemy army’s heads. The sheer lack of precision in this design, depending on the wind to move the balloon where you needed at just the right time, limited the practical use of this device, but you could tell where things were headed.
Subsequently, everybody from Nazis in WWII to Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq worked on perfecting military drone technology, converting radio-controlled target planes into highly sophisticated surveillance and attack aircraft capable of precision control from human operators located half-way around the world. Clearly, for a lot of people for a long time too, what is a drone was always answered in one way: a weapon.
Oh, then there is the name. Why “drones?”
Right, so supposedly the first radio-controlled and reusable UAV was a 1930s British biplane called “The Queen Bee,” which was a target vehicle, and since drones are male bees tasked with a single mission of mating with the queen bee, somehow the general idea of any single-mission or dedicated UAV being a drone caught on.
How Do Drones Work?
Radio to the Rescue
As you can tell from the incredibly dumb and irresponsible bomb-laden, free-floating balloon UAV we mentioned above, one of the main things operators of drones wanted to master was how to remotely control the devices.
This was accomplished pretty early on as it turns out, using a technology, radio signal communication still employed today. Following the example of The Queen Bee, an American company, Radioplane, produced 9,400 drone aircraft as target vehicles for the US military during WWII. One of their innovations was a push-button recovery mechanism, and another was a remote-control joystick, the basic idea still used today to remotely fly drones and control game consoles everywhere.
With radio-signal remote control established, the next step was to place as much onboard navigating (and eventually targeting) capability in the drone as possible. This would enable the drone to fly further and a lot more accurately using its own onboard programming, which could be used independently or in combination with remote control by a human operator.
As satellite technology enabled global GPS coverage, this data could be streamed directly into a drone, so its ability to “know” its location and how to fly to its destination could be determined with great precision and if necessary, its course could be adjusted at any time.
This would also enable a modern feature of civilian drones, the return-to-home functionality most of the better drones now possess. What is a drone increasingly came to be answered by determining where in the world exactly is the drone, and where is it headed.
Lastly, as computer and communication technology enabled the miniaturization of all electronic devices and of communication devices especially, many capable “smart” drones dramatically shrank in size and cost, and the gear to control them did as well. These days, a highly sophisticated drone, capable of doing things the Queen Bee-era drone operators would have found totally sci-fi, can be bought for $200 (or less) and operated by a kid with a smartphone app.
And, that fact is both an amazing opportunity for people interested in the future development of drone technology for recreation and commerce and a growing concern for security agencies and personnel looking down the barrel at a potentially uncontrollable problem already confronting most governments.
If anybody can fly and operate a relatively cheap drone, then how do you stop somebody intending on using one, or worse a swarm of them, to do harm?
And, that takes us in our review of what is a drone to a discussion of the highly interesting, newsworthy, but also legally problematic, topic of civilian drones.
While there have been radio-controlled aircraft used by civilian operators for many decades now, the numbers of those operators and the risks their miniature planes and helicopters posed to other aircraft (like commercial jets), and to people in general, were always fairly limited. This was in part because the numbers of RC or radio-controlled aircraft were relatively few, and the range and sophistication of those aircraft were always fairly limited.
Drone technology, as we have described its development above, changed all that. The latest figures from the FAA, for example, estimate there are at present over 1 million registered drones in the USA. No doubt there are many unregistered drones as well. One reason for that is the FAA rules governing registration have kept changing, with a gap in time where owners were required to register drones for recreational use.
The US government has acted in an often confused manner about civilian and commercial drone use. While the FAA has the power to set rules of operation for drones, and while there are legitimate security concerns about the operations of drones, the Feds do not want to inhibit the development of a growing and potentially highly lucrative and important industry.
Inevitably, though the civilian operation of drones has continued to increase, rather dramatically too, the network of rules, regulations, and laws has increased as well, and it will likely continue to do so. One fear many civilian drone operators have is that there may, at some point, be a move to ban civilian drone use or to so regulate it through licensing and other means that it is increasingly turned into an activity only accessible to wealthier citizens.
In spite of these concerns, again, most commentators see the situation as one where the US government and most global governments have more to gain from economically encouraging civilian drone use than trying to control it to death.
What Are Quadcopters?
One of the big reasons civilian and commercial drone use has skyrocketed in recent years is because of the introduction of a certain type of device as the default civilian drone to operate. And, that device is the quadcopter.
As the name implies, a quadcopter has four rotors in a rectangular arrangement that provide thrust, torque and enable velocity and directional control. Two rotors placed diagonally from one another rotate in one direction, and two rotors placed diagonally again rotate in the opposite direction. The net result of this, when all rotors are rotating at equal rates, is to produce zero torque or no effective rotation. And, that means the default state for a quad-copter, when in operation, is a stable hovering device.
Easier to Fly
What is so great about that is that even in a situation where a drone operator gets confused or loses control of the drone, this can be countered by simply releasing or stopping all input to the controller. So long as the drone is not already too far gone, for example just about to crash, it will return to its natural state of hovering.
This makes the quadcopter a lot easier and safer to operate than other types of drones.
And, here’s the thing. Because quadcopter technology is so prolific with so many companies making these devices at all levels of sophistication and cost, you can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on an amazing quadcopter whose camera will take pro-style videos and can follow you around like a dog or fly just about anywhere you can imagine (within the flight rules of course).
Cheaper to Try
On the other hand, you can get a quadcopter with no camera (of course) but with rotor guards in case you do crash. This just might happen if you’re a beginner. This is completely safe to operate in your home, all for less than $20!
That means you can get an introduction to this recreational activity, and learn to fly a drone, for very little money, and very little risk of causing some outdoor calamity. And so one surprising answer to what is a drone is that it is a great way to have some inexpensive fun!
What Makes a Good Civilian Drone?
We’ve talked a little bit about the popularity of one type of drone for civilian use, the quadcopter, but in addition to what we’ve already mentioned, what makes any device a good choice as a civilian drone?
This might seem kind of obvious, but the type of controls you get, how they operate, and the range of control, from the device being mostly automatic in its function to you actually flying the drone, varies enormously from device to device and from price-point to price-point.
A simple, safe-for-home-flight drone, such as we described above, may come with very basic controls, again with no camera and with a few pre-programmed maneuvers the drone can make. Often, you will have a “recall” button, even on less expensive controllers, so if you get into trouble or lose sight of the drone, you can press this, and the drone will automatically return to you.
As you move up the price range of drones, the features and sophistication offered by the units grow until you get devices that can essentially fly themselves, providing operators with simple to use control interfaces in phone apps.
The option always exists to get joystick controllers to actually fly these more expensive drones. But, you have to recall that if you’re just learning to fly, crashing a $2000 model with a great camera on it is going to likely concern you a great deal more than crashing a $20 camera-less toy. You can learn to fly on either one.
There is a whole class of civilian drone users who think of their drones as flying camera platforms or actually just as highly mobile cameras. In fact, most of the professional use of drones, from journalism to surveillance and security applications, centers on the camera as the key part of the drone. This means taking into consideration the quality of the camera onboard will be important for most buyers.
Drone cameras range in quality from relatively cheap equipment with low-resolution video and little or no direct integration with drone controls to high-res, highly integrated cameras and gimbals capable of giving excellent, live-feed, video streams.
You can also get drones that enable a user to add on their own choice of camera. In that case, you can expect less built-in integration with the drone unit itself, but of course, you’ll likely be getting a better quality camera, since most drone manufacturers focus a lot more on the quality of flight characteristics than on camera optics and performance.
Who is DJI?
We’ve spoken a lot in this article about what drones are and what civilian buyers of drones might look for when shopping for one, but who actually makes all these drones civilians are going to purchase?
At this point, and really for a number of years now, the most dominant player in the civilian drone field has been a Chinese company known as DJI. Depending on what market analysis you are reading, DJI controls somewhere between 50% and 70% of the consumer drone marketplace.
One reason for this has been the amazing success of DJI’s Phantom line of drones. The latest Phantom drones offer such features as:
- Three-axis stabilized camera
- Multi-sensor obstacle avoidance
- Hi-speed, Hi-Def video transmission
- Remote controller with a built-in screen
There are, of course, many other players in the consumer drone marketplace, but, so far, DJI competitors have found the going pretty challenging. American companies have of late indicated they think they can offer some real competition to DJI.
Certainly, opportunities abound in this industry, and it is literally true that not even the sky is a real limit as companies compete with one another to define what is a drone, and who gets to say so.
Next Stop: Outer Space
Back in September of 2017, the Washington Post reported about the latest SpaceX launch, sending the Pentagon’s newest drone, something called the X37-B, into Earth orbit.
As for what the drone would be doing in orbit, the Air Force would only say the X37-B would be conducting “on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies.” Since the low-Earth-orbit of the drone was in the same altitude as the ISS and lots of military satellites, most commentators figured the “emerging space technologies” probably had something to do with emerging military applications.
As we have been saying at various points in this article, and as we keep coming back to, the ever-present message in the most sophisticated drone technology being developed is that war is always going to be the main focus, even as nations take that technology into outer space.
Best Drone Ever
Fortunately, while it may be true this is a dominant focus, it is not the only one. And, space drones of all types are being developed to extend and automate our ability to explore space and other planets and to do such things as monitor climate change on planet Earth.
Indeed, probably the most successful drone ever developed, no, not Predator drones, but the Hubble Space Telescope, is still in highly beneficial operation to this day.
Since more and more nations are going into outer space, let us hope the competition stays friendly, and the drones stay focused on missions that benefit all of humanity.
In this article, we have asked and hopefully provided some useful answers to the question “What is a drone?” While modern drone technology has many aspects that are concerning to more and more people, that same technology offers the promise of greater vision and information in countless areas of our lives where those things can be highly beneficial.
And, we should not forget that if nothing else, learning to fly and operate your own drone is just a lot of fun that more and more people are deciding to join in on and experience.