What Are Drones?
“An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle” – Wikipedia
Till about 2000, drones were used primarily by the defense forces in the US and across the world to assist with military missions deemed too 'dull, dirty, or dangerous' for manned missions. About 40% US military aircrafts are now drones. The world has, however opened up to the limitless possibilities of deploying commercial drones.
Earlier in February 2012, the US passed a law allowing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to approve drones to be used for various commercial endeavors. According to the ‘FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012’, the FAA, along with NASA and some other federal agencies has been asked to make way for a complete integration of commercial drones into the US airspace by 2015. This includes the licensing and authorization of commercial drones. The FAA's deadline to select six sites in the country to run the UAV through a battery of tests to check for utility, safety, and other parameters before opening up to full commercialization was Dec 31, 2012. The FAA has missed this deadline and is further delaying the initiation of the process due to major privacy and fourth amendment concerns. Predictably, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and stakeholders with billions of dollars of investments in drones and those who have commercial applications ready are incensed by the delay.
Currently in the US, it is legal to own and fly a drone. Commercial activities such as aerial photography, conducting research, and providing security surveillance some of the diverse possibilities that drone owners may take up. According to the FAA, over 30,000 commercial drones could populate the American airspace by 2030.
How Can Drones Be Used Commercially?
Remote Sensing - Commercial drones can be fitted with a number of remote sensing functions such as electromagnetic spectrum sensors, biological sensors, gamma ray sensors, and chemical sensors. This could be used in a variety of commercial activities ranging from telecommunications to weather forecasting, from maritime monitoring to construction of infrastructure in difficult terrain.
Transport – Transport of food, medicines, equipment, and almost anything by drones is one of the major commercial impacts that drones are set to achieve. The proliferation of cell phones has allowed for GPS sensing in the remotest corners of the world. Guiding drones to transport material where there are no roads or even in the most congested cities is likely to have great commercial impact.
Aerial surveillance – UAV systems are likely to make aerial surveillance of large areas at a very low cost an achievable ambition. Apart from its impact on cartography, livestock monitoring, policing, commercial security, this could also provide a big break to aerial photographers, detective and surveillance outfits, the police, moviemakers and film technologists, animation and graphic activity, news reporters and journalists, and many others.
Search and Rescue – UAV Search and Rescue (S&R) systems have hitherto been routinely used by military outfits across the world. Commercial rescue teams are currently experimenting with drones. The Rescue Outback Joe challenge of the UAV Challenge saw the participation of over a number of university students and aerospace enthusiasts to demonstrate the S&R potential of drones.
Exploration - Apart from geophysical surveys, UAV can be used to great effect in oil and natural mineral exploration. The drones can help scientists and geologists identify regions and areas with oil and mineral deposits by helping them study the rocks and soils of these areas and also help in pipeline surveillance for maintenance of production facilities.
Research – UAV are perfect for researchers where the terrain is inaccessible or difficult to navigate due to natural calamities. In a marine or mountainous environment, drones can help track activity, routes, and help in identifying marine spills or wreckage. Drones can help researchers study the ecology, formation of tree inventories, and wildlife habitat in hitherto unreachable places.
Environmental Support - UAVs can be applied to detect and prevent forest fires, to spray pesticides over large areas of crops and control weeds and insect infestation, in early detection of environmental threats at high altitude and in supporting the environment over large areas. In South Africa, farmers have decided to fly over 30 drones to combat poachers who are driving the rhinoceros in the country towards extinction.
Drones, Drones, Drones
Tacocopter – The unmanned helicopter delivering Tacos to hungry Americans who supply their GPS coordinates in the Bay Area has currently been grounded by the FAA. The project also ran into challenges such as the copter’s inability to keep food warm and inability to avoid bird crashes. The idea is hugely popular, though.
Burrito Bomber - Darwin Aerospace, a San Francisco-based research lab, came up with the Burrito Bomber. When an order for the Burrito is placed online, a drone using a SkyWalker X8 Flying Wing for its airframe and an Ardupilot for navigation delivers a Burrito Delivery Tube to your doorstep. The delivery system uses a parachute mechanism for the release.
Real Estate Drones – Sydney-based Airbuzz Productions has recently started to use drones to capture videos of real estate properties and to share them on social networks and on YouTube allowing agents to take clients on a virtual tour of rural or distant properties and to help them make better presentations.
Ideate Drones – Ideate, part of the San Francisco non- profit group ReAllocate, tested a delivery system for medicines using the GPS system of drones and cell phones. To test the utility they chose the Burning Man Festival in Nevada – a difficult terrain and inhospitable conditions.
Parrot AR Drone - The Parrot AR Drone, currently available on Amazon is a remote-control quadricopter device which can be controlled by an iPod Touch, an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android device. It is the latest in gaming technology and features a front and a vertical camera, sensors, and an ultrasound altimeter.
Matternet Inc. is a startup based in Palo Alto, California. The concept of Matternet grew from a business concept discussion session at the Singularity University in the NASA Research Park Campus of the Silicon Valley. Andreas Raptopoulos, Paola Santana, Dimitar Pachov, and Darlene Damm went on to form Matternet with a vision to create the "next paradigm for transportation using a network of unmanned aerial vehicles".
Over a billion people across the world live in areas which have scanty road access or which are largely inaccessible for the greater part of the year. Over a seventh of the world population lives without access to an efficient road network, airport, or port. Access to water, food, medication, and even the basic necessities of life is difficult in these parts of the world. The cost of infrastructure to build roads and an efficient transport system is huge. Matternet suggests that a network of commercial drones is an excellent solution to such challenges.
In the first phase of operations, Matternet plans on introducing aircrafts carrier with plug-in chargers for point to point transportation. In the second phase, Matternet plans to introduce solar powered stations for these aircrafts to recharge autonomously. In phase three Maternet plans to integrate these into a global system as the individual networks start to overlap. A global exchange transport system can now be monitored and maintained efficiently for material exchange across the world. Matternet says its vision is “helping development take off, leapfrogging technologies and putting developing countries at the front of the next major paradigm shift; to (us) help build a more equal road-less world. Because people matter”.
“A start-up wants to replace road transport with swarms of tiny autonomous helicopters. Meet the firm with sky-high ambitions” - BBC about Matternet
Raising Unanswered Concerns
All commercial and public services organizations in the US can now own and send out drones. While newer business from real estate outfits to agricultural and pest-control service providers, film-makers to wildlife monitoring services, police, fire services and emergency services, are all free to use drones as part of their services. This, however, raises a number of concerns.
Information Security - Privacy and security of private information and photographs captured by drones may become a big issue.
Air Traffic - Air traffic control is only applicable to manned aircrafts and not to drones. A number of safety issues such as midair collision of drones need to be looked into.
Safety of Property - Use of commercial drones could irreversible damage personal and public property.
Privacy Concerns - While surveillance of private property from public airspace is permitted, the increase in the usage of drones brings concerns regarding private space to the forefront
Misuse – The use of drones by criminal elements and by terrorist outfits and a lack of regulation is possibly the biggest concern.
Legislation – Although the US approves of commercial use of drones, many countries are yet to approve the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for purposes apart from military or defense activity
"There are issues that this new technology also has the ability to start intruding into our daily lives if it's going to be misused by people" - Australian Privacy Commissioner
“As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage. I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public” - Ryan Calo, Director of Privacy and Robotics, Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University