Drone Development Moves Ahead

January 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

As the controversy regarding unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or drones, for commercial use continues, the development of drones moves ahead unabated, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announcing its approval of six locations to carry out drone research, three of which are universities – the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M University. The general public may have associated drones with the military in the past, but with the November 2013 appearance of Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes where he announced that his company is looking at using drones for deliveries, unmanned aircraft have become a much discussed topic, and raised a number of concerns regarding privacy and safety.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes, and are already widely used in industry and surveillance, as well as in search and rescue operations. Currently 56 government agencies have permission to operate drones within 63 designated drone sites in the United States, besides the six new locations earmarked for drone research. An example of surveillance application of a drone is the MQ-9 Reaper manufactured by General Atomics which is used to patrol the borders of the United States to detect drug dealers and illegal immigrants. In industry small drones, or nano-drones, are routinely used to access areas too small or too dangerous for humans to enter.

Other current and proposed uses for drones include spraying of pesticides on farms; herding and monitoring of livestock (which is reportedly already happening in England), forest fire detection (already being used in France); conservation surveillance of wildlife (already being used in Kenya and Nepal); mapping of land in high-resolution photographs and videos; delivering aid in rural and underdeveloped areas (a project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation); and monitoring archeological sites to prevent vandalism and theft.

While drones may be unmanned, they are not autonomous – yet. Drones must be remote controlled by a trained operator and may not fly above a height determined by the authorities in the area. This is an obstacle Amazon.com will need to overcome if their drone delivery system, dubbed Amazon Prime Air, is to be efficient and cost effective. The FAA is set to revise its regulations regarding drones by 2015 and the aviation authority has predicted that there will be up to 20,000 active drones in the US by 2017, an estimate that many consider to be very conservative. Privacy and safety issues will no doubt continue to be raised, and hopefully addressed, in the coming years as drones become more commonplace.

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