drone (UAV)

What is a drone?

A drone is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems. Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously using software-controlled flight plans in its embedded systems, that work in conjunction with onboard sensors and a global positioning system (GPS).

UAVs were most often associated with the military. They were initially used for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and, more controversially, as weapons platforms. Drones are now also used in a range of civilian roles, including the following:

How do drones work?

Drones have two basic functions: flight mode and navigation.

To fly, drones must have a power source, such as battery or fuel. They also have rotors, propellers and a frame. The frame of a drone is typically made of a lightweight, composite material to reduce weight and increase maneuverability.

Drones require a controller, which lets the operator use remote controls to launch, navigate and land the aircraft. Controllers communicate with the drone using radio waves, such as Wi-Fi.

What are common drone features and components?

Drones have a large number of components, including:

  • electronic speed controllers, which control a motor's speed and direction;
  • flight controller;
  • GPS module;
  • battery;
  • antenna;
  • receiver;
  • cameras;
  • sensors, including ultrasonic sensors and collision avoidance sensors;
  • Accelerometer, which measures speed; and
  • altimeter, which measures altitude.

Drone features vary based on the use it is put to. Examples of features include:

  • various types of cameras with high-performance, zoom and gimbal steadycam and tilt capabilities;
  • artificial intelligence (AI) that enables the drone to follow objects;
  • augmented reality features that superimpose virtual objects on the drone's camera feed;
  • media storage format;
  • maximum flight time, which determines how long the drone can remain in the air;
  • maximum speeds, including ascent and descent;
  • hover accuracy;
  • obstacle sensory range;
  • altitude hold, which keeps the drone at a fixed altitude;
  • live video feed; and
  • flight logs.

Navigational systems, such as GPS, are typically housed in the nose of a drone. The GPS on a drone communicates its precise location to the controller. An onboard altimeter can communicate altitude information. The altimeter also helps keep the drone at a specific altitude if the controller designates one.

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

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

Some drones use sensors to detect obstacles and avoid collisions. Initially, the sensors were designed to detect objects in front of the drone. Some drones now provide obstacle detection in five directions: front, back, below, above and side to side.

For landing, drones use visual positioning systems with downward-facing cameras and ultrasonic sensors. The ultrasonic sensors determine how close the drone is to the ground.

What types of drones are available?

There are two main types of drone platforms:

  1. rotor, including single-rotor and multi-rotor, such as tricopters, quadcopters, hexacopters and octocoptors; and
  2. fixed-wing, which include the hybrid vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drones that don't require runways.

Nonmilitary drones are generally either personal and hobbyist ones or commercial aircraft.

Hobbyist drone
Personal drones often provide video or still-camera capabilities.

Personal drones

Many personal drones are available for consumer use. They have become standard Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, offering HD video and still camera capabilities. Operators are often beginners who are looking to simply fly them for fun or racing. These drones usually weigh 10 pounds or less; they can be as light as under a pound.

Some popular personal drones include the following:

  • Autel EVO II offers high-end video.
  • DJI FPV Combo is built for racing.
  • DJI Air 2S is a good device for novices, with a foldable design and sensor technology.
  • DJI Mavic 3 is a powerful camera drone with omnidirectional obstacle sensing.
  • DJI Mini 2, at about 242 grams, it's one of the lightest drones.
  • Parrot Anafi is compact with advanced stabilization features that make it wind resistant.
  • PowerVision PowerEgg X flies in all weather, lands on water, has AI capabilities and converts into a handheld camera.
  • Ryze Tello is rated high for beginners.

Commercial drones

Stronger, more capable drones are also available for use in commercial settings. Insitu, a Boeing company, offers the ScanEagle, a UAV with a 10-foot wingspan and weighs 35 pounds. Insitu also builds the Integrator, an 80-pound aircraft with a 16-foot wingspan. Insitu drones do not take off from runways. Instead, they use VTOL capabilities in the company's launchers and recovery system. Sensors available include electro-optic imagers, mid-wave infrared imagers, infrared markers and laser rangefinders.

Drone launch
The Insitu Integrator extended range UAV sits on a Skyhook launcher.

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

Tethered drones are another option. They are physically tethered to a base station. Tethered systems can solve the power-supply challenge many drones face if the tether provides a direct power supply. For example, Elistair's Safe-T drone tethering station offers 2.5 kW power and can fly to heights of more than 200 feet, with data transfer rates of up to 200 Mbps.

In addition to Insitu and Elistair, other commercial drone manufacturers include:

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

Commercial and enterprise drone applications

Nonmilitary drone use has increased over the past decade. Beyond surveillance and delivery applications, UAVs are used for 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 many enterprise applications. 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 one way to combine drones and IoT. A security tech company teamed with a drone startup to hunt for Zigbee beacons to provide an overview of the IoT networks 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 often part of the same discussion. They offer a component in ubiquitous connectivity and interactivity.

Other examples of how the best drone technology is used include the following:

  • Agriculture. Drones measure and record the height of crops. They use lidar remote sensing technology that illuminates the crop with a laser and calculates distance by measuring what is reflected back. This can help farmers optimize agricultural production and promote sustainable farming practices.
  • Biological monitoring. Drones with biological sensors fly to unsafe areas to take air or water quality readings. They also can check for the presence of specific micro-organisms and atmospheric elements.
  • Wildfire monitoring. Firefighters use drones to survey an affected area to determine the extent of the damage and how fast a fire is spreading. Images taken provide details of the damage.
  • Sports coverage. Television networks use drones to capture sporting event footage, such as taped and live flyover footage, that would otherwise be difficult to capture. The use of drones must comply with S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, as well as sports league, venue and local law enforcement agency rules.

The history of drones

Drones go back 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 was 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. It was fitted with a radio and servomechanism-operated controls in the back seat. The plane could be conventionally piloted from the front seat, but generally it flew unmanned for artillery gunners in training to shoot.

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 unreliable and costly. After concerns about the shooting down of spy planes arose, the military revisited the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles. Military drones soon took on roles dropping leaflets and acting as spying decoys.

Military drone
Soldiers of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, recover a KZO reconnaissance drone following a successful mission during Thunder Storm 2018 multinational NATO military exercises on June 7, 2018 near Pabrade, Lithuania.

In 1982 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 as part of the military IoT, playing the following roles:

  • intelligence
  • aerial surveillance
  • force protection
  • search and rescue
  • artillery spotting
  • target following and acquisition
  • battle damage assessment
  • reconnaissance
  • weaponry

Some recent drone milestones include the following:

  • 2006. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency first used UAVs to monitor the U.S. and Mexico border.
  • Late 2012. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, retired to dedicate himself to his drone company, 3D Robotics Inc. The company started off specializing in hobbyist personal drones. Today, it markets UAVs for aerial photography and videography. It also sells to construction, utilities telecom and public safety businesses.
  • Late 2013. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan to use commercial drones for product delivery.
  • July 2016. Reno, Nev., startup Flirtey beat Amazon to the punch. It successfully delivered a package to a resident in Nevada using a commercial drone.
  • September 2016. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, working with Project Wing, a unit of Google owner Alphabet Inc., tested drone deliveries. They started with burritos from a local Chipotle restaurant.
  • October 2016. San Francisco-based Zipline launched a service delivering blood and drugs to hospitals in Rwanda.
  • March 2021. Zipline started delivering COVID-19 vaccines to healthcare providers in Ghana as part of the United Nation's COVAX initiative.
  • August 2021. Alphabet's Project Wing announced that it would pass the 100,000 drone delivery mark, which is another step toward proving that drone delivery at scale is possible.

UAV reception and drone regulations

Rapid adoption of drones over the past decade has sparked privacy, security and safety complaints and concerns. Voyeurs and paparazzi use drones to obtain images of people in their homes and other locations once assumed to be private. Drones are also used in unsafe locations, such as urban areas and near airports.

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

Underwater drone
Drones aren't limited to the sky. Some are made for underwater use.

Many countries have established UAV regulations. As drone usage grows in popularity, laws are continually changing. Personal and commercial drone pilots must check the laws of the country and locality in which they are operating the devices.

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

In the U.K., the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) restricts drones from flying above 500 feet. Any drone weighing more than a half-pound must be registered with the CAA. The agency 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, it was illegal to fly commercial drones under FAA regulations. Noncommercial flights were permitted below 400 feet only if operators followed Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, published in 1981. Changes to the U.S. rules followed the chronology below:

2005. The FAA issued its first guidelines on UAVs.

2006. The FAA issued its first commercial drone permit.

2007. The FAA published a drone operation policy.

2012. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was released. It included Section 333, which gave the U.S. Secretary of Transportation authority to approve commercial drone use on a case-by-case basis.

2014. Only two companies in the U.S. were allowed to operate commercial drones.

2015. An interim FAA policy governing the use of small drones for certain commercial uses under 200 feet was released. The FAA announced it had approved more than 1,000 applications for commercial drones. It continues to approve at a rate of approximately 50 applications per week.

2016. The FAA further relaxed its restrictions. Under its Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Regulation, Part 107, the FAA issued 3,100 drone permits in 2016 alone.

Part 107 places limits on autonomous or semiautonomous drone operation. Among other things, the 2016 FAA mandated:

  • Unmanned aircraft must remain within visual line of sight of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of a small unmanned aircraft system, or, alternately within VLOS of the visual observer.
  • Drones must remain at all times 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 their operation, under a covered structure or inside a covered stationary vehicle.
  • Operation is allowed only during daylight or civil twilight -- 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time -- with appropriate anti-collision lighting;
  • UAVs must yield right of way to other aircraft.

2018. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed Oct. 5, 2018. It set new conditions for recreational drone use. FAA rules differ for commercial and personal 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. Both recreational and commercial pilots are limited to a maximum height of 400 feet.

2021. The FAA gradually modifying Part 107 of the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Regulation. It changed the Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People rule April 2021 to allow routine operations over people and, in some cases, at night. This change amends the original 2016 rule which called for daylight-only operations and did not allow UAVs to operate over anyone not participating in the operation.

Drone use laws vary by state. For example, municipalities in Arizona that have two or more public parks must allow drones in at least one of them. A Minnesota law requires commercial drone operators to pay a commercial operations license and have drone insurance. Depending on the state, personal drone users may need to pass a safety test or obtain a license. For instance, in Massachusetts, all drone users are required to pass The Recreational UAS Safety Test. The FAA developed that test and recommended that all recreational users take it.

Training in drone technology

Drone education is expanding. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has long been a training center for the aviation industry. It now offers a Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems and a Master of Science in Unmanned Systems.

There are several self-study resources available for individuals who want to become certified commercial drone pilots as well.

What is the future outlook for drone technology?

Forecasts for the drone market are aggressive and optimistic.

  • Grandview Research has predicted revenue from the commercial drone market will reach $501.4 billion in 2028, up from $20.8 billion in 2021.
  • MarketsAndMarkets said the drone services market will grow to $40.7 billion by 2026, up from $13.9 billion in 2021.
  • The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted the drone industry will create more than 100,000 U.S. jobs by 2025.

Drones and unmanned aircraft will become a component of many businesses and government organizations. The evolution of complementary technologies like 5G, augmented reality and computer vision is expected to drive drone market growth and improve drone communication and intelligence.

As both personal and commercial drone use increases, government agencies will be refining their rules and regulations. Drones will also introduce new security vulnerabilities and attack vectors.

As drones continue to gain popularity in the enterprise, integration with well-constructed enterprise IoT networks will become increasingly important. Learn the 7 components of developing IoT infrastructure in the enterprise.

This was last updated in December 2021

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