Drones did not use to be the rugged quadcopters and sleek fixed-winged gliders you know them as today, and they certainly could not soar to great heights, capture amazing aerial views or send birds-eye-view footage from up to 500 meters away from home base. In fact, drones used to be clumsy pieces of technology that were anything but impressive, and it was not until The Predator MQ-1 that the U.S. military actually took a real interest in drone technology. Even so, however, the MQ-1 was a far cry from the missile drones used by the Germans or the balloon drones used by the Austrians. So, how did we go from unmanned aerial vehicles that were essentially hot-air balloons carrying bombs to the Hunter 4, Typhoon H, Parrot AR.Drone and another high tech, miniscule quadcopters? That is precisely the question this post is designed to answer.
Civilian Drones Pave the Way for Commercial Drones
In order to understand how commercial drones got their start, it is important to first understand when drones stopped being used for military purposes and when (and how) they started being used for consumer enjoyment. While military drone models certainly paved the way for consumer drones—after all, the newest military UAV technology is durable, designed for aerial surveillance and are designed to fly either autonomously or by remote control—consumer drones have their roots in two completely separate technologies: smartphones and hobbyists’ radio-controlled aircraft.
Many hobbyists and employees of the drone industry began making their own unmanned flying vehicles on the side by using small RC aircraft powered by miniature petrol engines. As you can imagine, the result was anything but beautiful. Apparently, the early consumer drones were noisy, finicky and destined for failure at first flight. But then along came smartphone technology.
The technology found in smartphones, tablets and portable computers was precisely what hobbyists needed to electrically power small aircraft in a quiet, smooth and safe manner. This technology was far more reliable petrol motors, easier to install and, of course, less expensive to operate. In fact, with a charging cord and an outlet, expenses were virtually nil once the building was complete.
Once it was discovered that the lithium polymer batteries found in smart technology were what was necessary to create a durable and reliable unmanned vehicle, hobbyists took it one step further and turned to microcontroller chips which, thanks to the quick advancements in technology, were relatively cheap to obtain. This software allowed them to squeeze a small computer into a box as small as a cigarette packet and paved the way for open-source autopilot software for fixed-wing drones. These microcontrollers also provided for onboard brains for a new design of drone: the quadcopter.
Just little more than a decade after the MQ-1 was introduced in 1994, research groups had come up with the technology necessary to man an aerial vehicle that had four vertical-axis rotors that could control the position of the drone by adjusting the speeds of the rotors. Considering that there was nearly a 100-year span between Austria’s bomb-balloons and the U.S.’s MQ-1, the fact that hobbyists were able to develop a quadcopter—a model never before seen before—within a decade of The Predator’s release is amazing, and a feat that should not be overlooked. So, it should come as no surprise that within just three years of the first civilian quadcopter being introduced that Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, was already proposing drone use for delivery.
Resolving Key Drone Issues
Before that could happen, hobbyists needed to resolve two key issues. The first was the stabilization of quadcopters. Though the quadcopter was a cool concept, they were difficult to keep stable in the air, much more difficult than their single propeller counterparts. When up in the air, quadcopters had a hard time staying right side up, and getting them to move one direction or another was a nearly impossible feat. Almost serendipitously, the cost of accelerometers based on micro-electromechanically systems—a technology used as tilt sensors in smartphones—had been drastically reduced, much as what happened with the microcontrollers. Once the tilt sensors were installed, it was like a whole new technology had been born. Instead of quadcopters flipping onto their backs midflight, they were flying straight, able to sway from one side to the other with the push of a button, and performing feats that even the military never dreamed possible with all their hardy technology. It seemed as if civilian drones had finally made it.
Of course, smart technology played a huge role in the development and advancement of civilian drones. Without smartphones and apps, there would be no way to control the UAVs beyond typical RC equipment. Additionally, smart technology provided the tiny components necessary to really bring the modern-day drone to life, such as micro-camera sensors and speedy Wi-Fi chips. The app uprising gave hobbyists a way to sync their micro-computers with their phones and other gadgets, giving them an easy and affordable way to man their equipment.
Ultimately, it was the stability of the quadcopter that grabbed the attention of the commercial world. Once videos were released of drones carrying glasses of water and performing other amazing acrobatic feats (as evidence in this 2013 YouTube video from roboticist Raffaello D’ Andrea), it truly seemed as if the possibilities were endless. If the government trusted drones enough to do its dirty work, and if hobbyists had found a way to make UAVs friendly, why should drones not be used in the customer service field?
Military Powers (Without the Military Cost)
Once family-friendly companies such as Amazon began to realize that drones did not have to be scary or expensive, they began to look more seriously at drones as a means of fulfilling customer requests. There was another issue that needed to be resolved first, and that was the issue of durability. If these drones were going to be used to deliver packages, film football games or capture aerial foot for research purposes, they need to be durable. That’s where military drones come back into play.
Military drones were built to withstand some of the most demanding conditions that even man could not survive. They were also built to fly great distances without faltering and, best of all (at least from a commercial standpoint), to fly autonomously. Commercial drones needed to incorporate those three capabilities, but at a fraction of the cost of what the military spent building its UAVs. They also need to incorporate many of the capabilities demonstrated by consumer drones, such as the ability to follow runners, cyclists or skiers and to film them from above.
Advanced algorithms, improved onboard processing power and improvements in camera vision seem to be in the works to make commercial drones capable of “thinking” more independently and of operating with the precision of a well-oiled machine as opposed to a fallible human. The possibility of greater autonomy also introduces the possibility of drone swarms, which may sound scary but could actually reduce the stress on package carriers everywhere. Imagine, instead of the UPS man being forced to deliver late into the evenings during the holiday season or in extreme weather conditions, companies like UPS, FedEx and DHL Express can do more without sacrificing the safety or family time of their workers.
The Future of Commercial Drones
This post referenced package delivery quite a few times, but the truth is that drones have the potential be used for a number of exciting reasons by individuals, commercial organizations and governments everywhere. In fact, the FAA has already cleared several industries for airspace and has established Federal Aviation Regulations for commercial flyers, making the possibilities for drone use all the more real. Some commercial uses for drones already in place or being talked about include:
- Express shipping and delivery
- Aerial photography for film and journalism
- Building safety inspections
- Search and rescue operations via the use of thermal sensor drones
- The research and information gathering for natural disaster preparation
- Unmanned cargo transportation
- Video surveillance for law enforcement and border patrol
- Precision crop monitoring
- Storm tracking and forecasting of natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes
- Geographic mapping of terrain and locations that are typically inaccessible by humans
As you can see, the future for commercial drones is an exciting one, and there is significant potential for drones to change the way the world lives and operates. Not only will companies such as Amazon and DHL Express be able to do more for their customers and reduce the workload for employees, but also, there is the very real potential to predict natural disasters in advance and potentially save thousands of lives.
Drones may have gotten their roots on the battleground, but it is clear that they are destined to do much more than direct missiles to a target. In fact, with the advancements made by hobbyists and commercial organizations, the new drone may be open that the military looks to for inspiration instead of the other way around. Only time will tell, though.