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Drones: The Human Ingenuity

Though drone technology is exciting and full of new promises, not everything is right about their use. They rapid adoption have raised several security concerns in the private space of our lives.

Photo Credit : ShutterStock

Most of us would be in awe of the Drones that we see today. Would we have ever imagined five years back, that a drone would actually deliver a pizza at home? That they are used almost everywhere, in search operations after disasters, border infiltrations, aerial photography & videography, real estate photography, mapping & surveying, asset inspection, payload carrying, agriculture, bird control, crop spraying, delivering goods, besides their role in the military, is as much a commentary on the human spirit as it is on the human intelligence and ingenuity.

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). No people in it. It is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled. Whereas Robots are controlled by software, where intelligence is built-in through a host of sensors, a drone flies autonomously on account of software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems. They work in conjunction with onboard sensors and GPS. 

Sometimes drones are also piloted remotely (RPV). They can fly for long hours, at a controlled speed and at a controlled height which means all rules of aviation apply to them. Is this technology modern? Far from it, the first pilot less vehicles were developed by the British and the Americans as far back as in 1918 during the times of World War I. The British first tested a small radio-controlled vehicle and then the Americans tested an aerial torpedo known as the “Kattering Bug”. Both were never used in the War though. 

The name Drone originated around 1935 in Britain when their radio-controlled unmanned vehicles were used for target practice and training. Their bee like humming got one of them the epithet of DH. 82B Queen Bee. However, the Americans used them for large scale reconnaissance in Vietnam war, launching missiles against fixed targets and dropping leaflets. A phenomenal increase of their use came about after the US 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

So how does a drone fly and what does it consist of? It has a power source so it can fly, such as battery or fuel, rotors, propellers and also has a frame like any other normal aircraft. However, its frame is lightweight that reduces self-weight allowing it to carry higher payloads. It uses composites, to reduce weight and increase manoeuvrability during flight. Like any motion device, it also requires a controller operated remotely to launch, navigate and land it. Their communication uses radio waves, including Wi-Fi signalled as they are by a host of sensors like accelerometer, altimeter, distance sensor, ultrasonic, laser, lidar, time-of-flight sensors, thermal sensors, visual sensors in both infrared and ultraviolet range, chemical sensors, stabilization and orientation sensors, collision avoidance sensors. They even have Gyroscopes, magnetometers and barometers that monitor the slightest of variations.  

The technological advances have improved the drone endurance and their ability to achieve greater heights and speeds. Today, they use solar power for longer flights. As human ingenuity grows, new ideas emerge, today drones are even used as weapons to eliminate terrorists. In recent times, Operation Shader, an ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant by the British and the Americans extensively use the most sophisticated MQ-9 Reaper UAV. These provide obstacle detection in all six directions: front, back, below, above and side to side. They just take off and are recovered from catapult launchers.

DW estimates that there are around 110,000,000 landmines, left over from decades of wars and conflict deployed around the world in around 65 countries. They cause over 6,000 casualties a year and may take nearly 1,000 years to clear them all with current methods. 

Mine Kafon is a drone designed to remove such dangerous mines. The Pouncer is a drone that's designed to reach remote disaster areas where roads are blocked or impassable. It delivers life-saving drugs and food stuffed in its wings. Even the frame of the drone can be deconstructed and used for firewood, while coverings can be used for shelter.

With such mind-boggling applications and possibilities, we must sneak a peek into their use in our daily lives. 3D Robotics, Inc. (3DR) a company in the US used to specialize in hobbyist personal drones. However, they took to new markets with drones that do aerial photography for films, construction, utilities and telecom businesses. They even supply security drones among others. One of the most innovative is an Ambulance Drone that can deliver a defibrillator system to heart attack victims.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, the commercial drone activity grew with several like Amazon, Flirtey, delivering air packages to homes. Even Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University along with Google owner Alphabet, Inc., developed drones for restaurant deliveries.

Drones have found their way into agriculture and help maximise the returns for a farmer in a variety of ways including information about the soil health. Hyperspectral sensors help identify minerals and vegetation, and are ideal for use in crop health, water quality and surface composition. 

Like all things in commerce, must find their way into education, Drone technology also must find its way into education. It is and expanding too. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a premier training place for the aviation industry, now offers a Bachelor of Science in unmanned systems applications, a Master of Science in unmanned systems and an undergraduate minor in unmanned aerial systems. The Indian institutions must follow suit since the technology has yet unthinkable applications. The Indian industry and institutions must stop being led and venture out leading. 

Though we do not require security clearance to operate and fly mini and Nano drones. Neither  do we require remote pilot licence for micro drones for non-commercial use as per the drone regulations of India. That the Civil Aviation Ministry displays an interactive airspace map on its website that shows the three zones, ‘yellow’ or controlled airspace, ‘green’ or no permission required and ‘red’ flying not permitted is good for all those adventurists venturing into the drone world. However, all enthusiasts must follow the drone code: Not to fly near airports or airfields, remembering to stay below 120 met. AGL, speed at less than 25 met/sec and stay at least 150 feet away from buildings and people, observing the drone at all times and never ever flying near aircraft. 

Though drone technology is exciting and full of new promises, not everything is right about their use. They rapid adoption have raised several security concerns in the private space of our lives. In the private space of our lives, voyeurs and paparazzi have used drones to obtain images of individuals in their homes or other locations once assumed to be private. Such data has later been used for extortion. 

Drones in future are big business. A 2016 Business Insider BI Intelligence report forecasted drone revenues to reach $12 billion in 2021. PricewaterhouseCoopers has valued the drone-based businesses service market at more than $127 billion with the top industries being infrastructure agriculture and transportation. Goldman Sachs predicts a $100 billion market for drones between 2016 and 2020, with the military making up the bulk of it. India too must make the best of the coming of drones for besides the revenue it has potential to generate millions of jobs, profile of which was never heard of.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr S S Mantha

Former Chairman of AICTE, Dr. Mantha is an eminent academician. At present he is Chancellor KL University and Adjunct Professor, NIAS, Bangalore.

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