A Few Words about Drones
You see the word constantly in the media – but what is a drone? Well, I’m sure that most of us will recall that a drone is a kind of bee found in a beehive, but comparatively recently the word has become the name for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), possibly because these flying machines have some of the same attributes as drone bees.
Work on drones, or UAVs, started in the early 1900s and their development continued through WW1, WW2, and the cold war, until their capability, effectiveness and usefulness reached the stage they currently have. Now never a day passes without a mention of drones, perhaps in a military capacity in Yemen or nearly colliding with an airliner in the UK.
In general, there are two types of drone, fixed-wing and propeller-driven. The fixed-wing type is used largely for reconnaissance, combat or for various commercial purposes and can be classified depending on its capability as to flying duration, distance, and height, and sometimes by weight, which might be as low as two and a half pounds.
In fact, the well-known and much-appreciated eBee, made in Switzerland, weighs only one and a half pounds (700 gm), has a wingspan of 38 inches (96 cm) and is driven by an electric-power pusher-propeller fitted at the rear. Getting airborne is easy – just shake the eBee a few times to start the engine, then throw it into the air and it’s on its way. It can then fly for up to 50 minutes, cover up to 4.6 square miles (12 square km’s) of territory and is used for aerial photography by thousands worldwide. It comes complete with WX camera, batteries, radio modem and ground station software and the images recorded can be processed with software such as Pix4DMapper pro.
Propeller-driven, or rotor-driven, drones or Quadcopters as they are usually called, are also widely popular today. As the name implies, a quadcopter is propelled by four rotors, two of which rotate clockwise, and two anti-clockwise. The speed of each rotor can be varied and this allows control of the machine.
A good example is the Chinese-made Phantom 4, which at 1,380 gm or nearly 4 lbs. is a sturdy, magnesium-framed drone that can fly for up to 28 minutes and cover up to 3.1 miles or 5 km. It has various flight modes that can be changed according to requirements and provides a 720p view of everything its camera sees. Control is easy, for with just a couple of taps, the drone is on its way and its Obstacle Sensing System ensures that it will avoid any hazard. And with just one more tap, it returns safely to base.
Drones can be controlled from the ground by radio signals and the use of a camera and a video link or autonomously guided by software systems. Power is supplied by lithium-polymer batteries, or for larger machines, by fuel or occasionally by the sun.
With countless drones in operation all over the world, and their purchase easily available both off and online, are there any restrictions or regulations on their use? As far as the USA is concerned, from December 2015, all hobby-type drones with a weight from 8.8 oz (250 gm) to 55 lbs (25 kgs) must be registered with the FAA and similar regulations have been introduced in several other countries. At the same time, many countries restrict the export of certain types of drone and their accessories.
There are also moral concerns to be considered when using drones. For example, is it right to kill or bomb someone by remote control? What if there is a deadly malfunction or a mistaken target? What if the software controls are hacked? It is likely that both national and international laws will be promulgated to cover these aspects of drone use in the not too distant future.