Friends or Foes?

UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), commonly referred to as drones, are becoming more and more common. With the increasing consumer focus of drones, it's important to understand the uses, technologies, and concerns about them.

Applications of Drones

From commercial package delivery to aerial research projects, Drones have the potential to be useful in a wide variety of applications, most of which don't even exist yet.

DJI Drone. Image from pixabay.com

Commercial Applications

From delivering pizza and online orders to capturing sky-high perspectives on film, drones can be used in many commercial aspects that promise to make life easier for the consumer and the business alike. As of December 31st, 2015, 2,799 companies have been granted authorization from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to use drones for a variety of useful purposes ranging from real estate, construction sites, news gathering, environmental inspection, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue and much more.

Companies like Amazon are busy innovating and solving problems to make half-hour drone deliveries a reality. Their solutions promise to make the near future even more convenient to people. The video below, created by Amazon, showcases a fast and accurate delivery drone that is currently in development. These sort of applications are quickly being realized by engineers and companies.

Domino's Pizza has also come up with a cool way to employ drones to make our lives easier: the DomiCopter. They have created an eight-rotor drone that can carry pizza orders and deliver warm pizza directly to customers' doors, saving time and money for both the business and the consumer.

The New York skyline from a drone's prespective.
The New York City skyline from a drone's prespective.

By allowing filmmakers to get new prespectives on the scene, from birds-eye views and intense chase scenes that are not possible by land vehicles, drones are transforming the visuals of many new movies and TV series. For example, this intense motorbike chase scene from Skyfall, which takes place on the rooftops of Instanbul's famous bazzaar, was shot party with a drone: the Flying Cam SARAH 3.0. This drone is capable of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL), and uses gyroscopic technology to keep the camera head stable.

Even independent filmmakers and directors are now getting access drones that promise appealing visuals and easy use. Pro-sumer class drones, such as DJI Global's Inspire 1 and their Phantom series, are transforming both the independent filmmaker toolset and the images on our televisions. Filmmaker Philip Bloom has used DJI's drones while working on CNN's The Wonder List, in order to deliver compelling and artistic footage.

DJI Phantom 4. photo credit: Philip Bloom
The DJI Phantom 4 drone. Image by Philip Bloom

Research Applications

Lightweight and maneuverable, drones can carry cameras and various sensors, as well as be controlled remotely or run autonomously. Using the amazing capabilities of drones, researchers are now pushing the boundaries of science, more safely and reliably than ever before. Various scientific fields, ranging from ecology to meteorology, are reaping the benefits of research drones and due to the rapidly developing technology, the future of drones in research is promising.

Drones in the Wild

Wildlife researchers are using drones equipped with powerful cameras to map biodiversity and survey animal populations in hard to reach places. By altering the speed, angle, and color of the drones, biologists are getting closer to animals and more safely than before. Flying at low altitudes to observe the animals is dangerous and in fact, is the number one killer of wildlife biologists. By using drones, researchers are putting themselves out of harm’s way while also gathering precise data efficiently. Drones are quieter than aircrafts or helicopters, cost less than flights, and, by using advanced technology and techniques such as infrared video, can take more precise recordings and gather reliable data.

Drone Offers an Unprecedented Peek Inside an Osprey Nest from Audubon.org on Vimeo.

Lian Pin Koh, a conservation ecologist from Australia, used drones to accurately survey orangutan nests in the dense Indonesian rainforest. These drones covered the area in mere hours, which is a tremendous improvement over how researchers would traditionally tackle the problem: by sending research assistants on a week long journey in the dangerous rainforest to manually count the number of nests. Although there are concerns about the effects on the populations studied, proper regulations would ensure the continuation of safe and effective research on wildlife.

Going Above and Beyond

In the sky, drones are being used more and more to access hard to reach places and gather potentially lifesaving data. NASA has created the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission, using two former Air Force Global Hawk drones. The goal of this mission is to investigate hurricane formation and intensity in the Atlantic Ocean basin.

The NASA Global Hawk
The NASA Global Hawk drone. Image from the NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet

The Global Hawk UAS is capable of "flight altitudes greater than 55,000 ft and flight durations of up to 30 hours" (NASA). The first drone carries equipment that measures the environment while the second has instruments suited to capturing data from the inner-core of the hurricane. With the data that they gather, NASA hopes to improve hurricane predictions and save lives.

Mapping the Future

GPS-enabled drones, mounted with specialized cameras, are increasingly being used for photogrammetry and lidar mapping. Photogrammetry is the science of using photographs to make measurements and create maps or 3D models. Drones are mounted with a camera and sent on a pre-programmed path above an area. The camera takes multiple overlapping pictures, incredibly accurately with the waypoint technology of the drone, that can be used to create a model.

Mapping Christ the Redeemer using drones and photogrammetry. Pix4D, Aeryon Labs Inc, and PUC University of Rio de Janeiro.

Lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging, involves mounting a laser scanner to a drone and then flying over an area, measuring the heights of hundreds of points. Like photogrammetry, this data can be used to create incredibly detailed and accurate models and maps. This sector of drone usage has many uses, including aiding conservation (analysis of different regions), agriculture (detailed maps of farmland), and surveying (Digital Elevation Models). This sector of drone usage is only just beginning and it offers exciting and revolutionary benefits, most of which are still being developed. (Dronezon.com)

Educational Applications

Drones are becoming more common in education, from primary school to higher education. The uses of drones are changing the way that students are taught. Drones offer exciting hands-on experiences to impressionable children, enriching their knowledge and skills. Using drones in primary education can influence students to consider STEM fields. Students can also use the the impressive video capabilities of drones in a variety of ways, from filming projects to recording sports practices from a new perspective.

Kids use a drone at Whitetail Elementary in Gretna, Nebraska
Fifth grade students at Whitetail Elementary in Gretna, Nebraska watch as their drone flies through a hula-hoop. Image from The Washington Times

More-so in secondary education and higher education, drones can help students learn about the robotics behind drones. This branches off into a variety of educational opportunities, such as applied math and physics, electronics, and programming. In the next three years, there are a projected 70,000 new drone-related jobs in the US, so it is crucial that students are introduced to drones at an early age and are made aware that an education and career in drones is a possibility.

In recent years, more and people are taking advantage of the amazing capabilities of drones. From a commercial aspect, drones promise to make lives easier, for both the consumer and the businesses. The potential for drones in research is endless, as technology continues to improve, and drones are being used for a variety of important research projects, such as wildlife conservation, hurricane prediction, and 3D mapping. Drones are quickly becoming a major aspect of the future, so exposing students to the benefits of drones in schools is ensuring that more students are exploring STEM fields.Without a doubt, the future of drones in commercial, research, and education sectors is bright and their potential to benefit mankind is limitless.

The Technology Driving Drones

Brushless motors, intelligent control algorithms, and GPS functionality all contribute to making drones one of the most advanced techonology of this time period.

DJI Drone. Image from pixabay.com

Early Drones

Drones in the strictest sense of the word were seen as early as 1849, when the Austrians attacked Venice with unmanned hot-air balloons armed with explosives.

One of the earliest drones that resemble anything that we have today appeared in the June, 1956 edition of Popular Mechanics, which described a "Pilotless photo drone taking aerial pictures" that would be useful to take combat pictures without endangering soldiers' lives. For a long time, the only application that people saw for drones was military.

Drones Today

However, most drones today are consumer and industry focused, which is a big part of the reason they are such a hot topic today. They offer many technologies that make them appealing to many audiences, from professional and amateur filmmakers, to DIY hobbyists and avid programmers.

Types of Drones

While "drone" is used today to describe anything from a huge military vehicle to a remote-controlled quadcopter, it actually refers to autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles. Autonomous means that the drone can fly by itself along pre-programmed or other paths without user input.

Rotary-wing design

The rotary-wing design, which usually features four (quad-) or six (hexa-) rotors, is the most common type of drones seen today. These are very popular for small drones primarily because they are mechanically simple. Unlike a normal heli, which has a complex propeller-to-body connection mechanism that allows adjustment of pitch, a quadcopter uses four motors connected directly to four propellers. This is a total of four moving parts, and is enhanced by advances in electric motors and semiconductors, making them easy to control.

The Parrot Bebop 2 Drone

However, there are some disadvantages to a four-rotor design. The direct fixed-prop connection of the propeller to the motor means that only the speed of the prop is adjustable, unlike traditional helicopters, which can also adjust pitch on the propeller and have a dedicated tail rotor to control spin. This is why the inherent instability of the design cannot be counteracted mechanically, and must be dealt with by actively slowing down and speeding up the motors to stabilize the drone on the three axes, which wastes a lot of energy.

Still, the scale of most quadcopters (really small) means that the disadvantages that come with four simple mechanisms don't matter. It is easier to add electronic stabilization and counteract the instability of a four-rotor design than it is to build a complex propeller connection at a small scale. And at such a small scale, that loss of efficiency doesn't matter. (questuav.com)

Fixed-Wing Drones

The other major design of drone is the fixed-wing design, however, these are very uncommon. These are driven by a single propeller in the back, and generates lift using a traditional airplane-like wing design. The main advantage of this design compared to a rotary wing design is that this has a much simper structure. This provides more efficient aerodynamics, which translates to longer flight times and top speeds. The fixed-wing design is also more robust, and is able to carry heavier cargo for longer distances, such as better/bigger sensors.

A Fixed wing drone by 3DR.
A fixed wing drone by 3DR

The biggest disadvantage comes with the need for a runway or launcher for takeoff. This is being remedied with advancements in vertical takeoff/landing (VTOL) technologies, which allows the drone to take off vertically off of small or uneven surfaces, similar to quadcopters. The other disadvantage is that they need to stay in motion for the air to flow over their wings and generate lift, unlike rotary-wing drones, which are capable of hovering in place and rapidly adjusting height. (questuav.com)

Consumer Drones

However many innovations are now being made by companies such as DJI and Parrot that promise easy-to-use and feature-rich pro-sumer products. These are being designed to offer the most functionality at a low cost, meaning a large consumer base and range of applications.

DJI Global, a drone company based in Shenzhen, China, has been creating consumer and industrial drones for a couple of years, and every generation is more innovative and feature-rich than the last. For example, the recently released Phantom 4 boasts consumer-focused features such as Tap-To-Fly, making take off and landing safe and easy, and Visual Tracking, so ordinary people don't have to become first-class pilots to track their subject.

Along with this, improving camera and stabilization technologies allow drones such as the Phantom 4 to have a built-in camera with active 3-axis stabilization, making it easy for consumers to capture aerial footage and realize an important application for drones: filmmaking.

Another company, Parrot SA, based in France, creates more recreational drones that feature easy to use flight controls and camera technology that enable amateurs and hobbyists to capture footage. This means that their products are less expensive while offering a lot of the same features as higher-end drones.

Unlike DJI, Parrot is also planning a fixed-wing drone, the Disco, which is capable of 50 mph speeds in the air. This drone is set to overcome a lot of the limitations of the fixed-wing design, such as the takeoff runway requirements and bulky wings. Innovations enable automatic takeoff with a frisbee-link throw, automatic "return home," and automatic landing with embedded ground sensors.

Future Drone Technology

Imagine constructing a bridge in an inhospitable and dangerous environment without the risk of losing lives. This proof-of-concept video uploaded by researcher Federico Augugliaroof promises just that. In an experiment conducted at the Flying Machine Arena in Zurich, Switzerland, researchers have programmed a pair of drones to autonomously work together to brild a rope bridge.

A quadcopter with a motorized spool containing rope.
The specially-modified quadcopter with a motorized spool containing Dyneema, a material suitable for aerial construction. Image from Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control

This rope bridge is strong enough to support the weight of a person crossing it. This could potentially open up a whole new industry of uses for drones capable of autonomous and safe construction.

The Drone Controversy

Because of the versatility and ease of use of drones, and the wide vaiery of drones available that can track location and take pictures/video, there are many public concerns about drone technology.

As with any rapidly advancing and proliferating technology, drones have raised important questions regarding privacy and safety that stem from their residency in the gray area between true aircraft and toys.


The ease of which different payloads can be swapped and installed onto higher end drones has raised perhaps what is the most important issue surrounding this technology: privacy. Even $50 drones on Amazon come with pre-attached cameras, albeit with low resolutions and memory. Needless to say, the breakneck speed of drone development as well as camera miniaturization will quickly fix that particular caveat.
Privacy is a critical issue in law, particularly here in the United States, where it is the primary issue of nearly half of the original Bill of Rights, not to mention the in numerous number of related laws passed since the 18th century. None of these laws, however, directly addresses the unique problems small unmanned aircraft (UAS) pose. Drones can be flown over private property, loiter overhead, take pictures and videos, and leave without ever alerting the attention of an unsuspecting homeowner. There are few laws in place to address or punish privacy invasions such as these; indeed lawmakers are scrambling to just define what constitutes as privacy invasion when it comes to drones. However, as one Stanford writer notes, drones may be the kind of lightning change that finally pushes privacy reform for the 21st century to the top of the priority list.

It may be tempting to conclude on this basis that drones will further erode our individual and collective privacy. Yet the opposite may happen. Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.
- M. Ryan Calo (Director for Privacy and Robotics at Stanford’s Center for Internet & Society)


The enormously wide variance in drones, from minuscule lightweights to fifty pound behemoths that can carry entire commercial quality cameras without modification pose a staggering safety concern. Not much usually happens from a pound heavy toy drone flying around and perhaps crashing with a novice at the controls, but what if a Phantom drone (weighing over 30 pounds) suffers a critical battery failure and crashes? What if it hit an old lady in the park? Who’s responsible? Is it the pilot or the manufacturer? These questions demonstrate that drone threats to public safety is not a problem that can be easily solved.


Swift drone development was blurred the lines between what counts as aircraft, and what counts as a "toy." Do you classify a 1 pound quadcoptor in the same category as an 100 pound RC plane? Do you require them to have the same regulations? Prior February 19th, 2016, hobbyist drone usage in the United States had been an unregulated affair – if you could afford to buy a drone, you could fly it without the need for a license or registration. This changed with the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement of a new small unmanned aircraft (UAS) registration rule. Applicable to craft(including payloads such as cameras) weighing from 0.55 pounds to 55 pounds, the rule essentially classifies drones as aircraft, and their pilots as aviators. An extension of greater privacy and safety concerns, the debate over drone classification continues despite this ruling, as the topic factors heavily in how the exploding industry will be regulated in the near future.

"Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility. Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation."
- U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

With power, comes great responsibility, leading to the possibility that drone enthusiasts in the future may be required to obtain licensing before their first flight. Whatever the FAA decides to implement next regarding drones, controversy will surely greet it. They will be navigating through murky, uncharted waters.