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Drones: What Are They, Exactly, and How Will They Affect Your Future?

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Drone aircraft are in the news practically every day. But what is a drone? How is a drone different from a radio controlled airplane? Who flies drones, and why? In this article, The Internet of Things author Michael Miller tells you all about drones -- and how they will affect your future.
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You've heard about drones. You know, those things that shoot breathtaking aerial photography, deliver pizzas (well, maybe in the future), and bomb people in foreign countries. But just what is a drone, anyway -- and how does the whole drone thing impact you? The subject of drones is both simpler and more complex than you imagine, so read on to learn more.

Understanding Drones

In technical terms, a drone aircraft is an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as a UAV. That means it's an aircraft, of any size or type, that flies by itself, without an onboard pilot or passengers. Think of it as a robot plane, controlled either autonomously or via remote control.

Despite all the recent drone buzz, UAVs are nothing new. In fact, today's drones resemble nothing more and nothing less than the radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters that have been available in hobby stores since when you were a kid. Whether we're talking R/C planes, R/C helicopters, or the newer R/quadcopters, you can call them all drones and not be incorrect. (Witness the number of hobbyist companies now calling their R/C aircraft drones. It's a hot term.)

That said, I don't think too many people are going to look at one of those small R/C copters designed for indoor use and call it a drone, nor the typical R/C prop plane. In most people's eyes, a drone is something larger, probably more of a copter or quadcopter than a plane, and probably loaded with some sort of digital camera to take photos and videos while aloft.

That is especially true when we talk about commercial and military drones. These units are typically larger than the drones you can find in your local hobby store, and often purpose-built. As you can imagine, a drone used by the military to launch missiles at an enemy target is far removed from a simple quadcopter designed for fun flying.

In addition, commercial and military drones have much longer ranges than do hobbyist aircraft. They can not only fly further on a single charge or tank of gas, but they can also be controlled from a much greater distance. Whereas most R/C craft can fly only as far as the land-based pilot's visual range, commercial/military drones can be flown from thousands of miles away, using a combination of satellite and autonomous control technologies. This lets a home base remotely control drones across an entire city, state, country, or even continent.

Drones for You

As an interested hobbyist, where can you buy a drone?

The best place to look is your local hobby store, if you have one. I always like buying local, especially when you're getting into something new like R/C flight. Your local retailer can provide the expertise and advice you need to get started and get your drone in the air. (Know that not all drones are easy to fly; there's a definite learning curve involved.)

If you don't have a local hobby store then, by all means, shop online. Amazon.com offers a wide selection of models, as do various Internet-based hobby and R/C stores. Just Google "shop drone" and you'll get a screen full.

Whether you shop locally or online, consider joining a local R/C hobbyist group. You can learn a lot from associating with your fellow drone enthusiasts -- and even join up for some fun group meets. (There are also online hobbyist forums, of course -- which you may also gravitate to.)

When you're shopping for a hobbyist drone, know that they fall into three broad categories:

  • RTF, or ready-to-fly. An RTF drone comes with everything you need in a single box, including both the drone and the controller. There's nothing extra to buy.
  • BNF, or bind-and-fly. BNF drones come completely assembled but lack the radio controller, which you need to purchase separately.
  • ARF, or almost-ready-to-fly. These are drone kits that you have to assemble. Make sure you're good with your hands -- and in following directions!

When you're first starting out, the RTF route makes a lot of sense. Leave the assembly to more experienced pilots!

Whether you go RTF, BNF, or ARF, you're probably looking at a copter rather than a fixed-wing aircraft (i.e, an airplane). A traditional R/C plane is fun and relatively easy to fly, but you can't hover it. If you want your craft to remain stationary over a given location or target, a helicopter is the only way to go.

Know, however, that R/C helicopters have a much steeper learning curve than fixed-wing aircraft; they're simply a lot more difficult to fly. This is why we've seen a surge of interest in quad-rotor helicopters, or quadcopters. A quadcopter has four fixed-pitched rotors on top; two rotate clockwise and two counter-clockwise, providing remarkable in-flight stability. It's not surprising that these easy-to-control quadcopters are the most-used drone aircraft for most civilian situations. They're easy to fly and a lot of fun.

Figure 1 A typical hobbyist quadcopter, the UDI-RC Super UFO RTF Quad Copter with video camera.

You probably also want to equip your drone with either a digital camera or video camera, to shoot pictures and videos while in flight. Some drone cameras simply record their images and videos to an SD memory card, which you can remove at the end of the flight. Others beam back live video to the remote controller or smartphone app, or (over the Internet) to your computer. To many, this is the most fun part of the drone hobby, getting a birds-eye view of where your drone is flying.

These specs define a fairly large segment of today's R/C aircraft market. For example, the Parrot Bebop Drone is a quadcopter that includes a built-in computerized GPS navigation system; this enables the craft not only to hover in flight, but also to automatically return to its launch location. It also includes an onboard HD camera and creates its own Wi-Fi hotspot, so you can control it with your smartphone or tablet. (Or its own optional controller, of course.)

Figure 2 The Parrot Bebop Drone quadcopter in flight; note the camera mounted in the nose of the craft.

Note that the Parrot Bebop Drone, like many other newer and more expensive models, includes first-person view (FPC) capability that enables you to fly the craft further than you can see. To make it work, an FPC craft includes a video camera mounted in the nose of the plane, which sends back signals in real-time that you view on the video screen of the controller or in the craft's smartphone app. This gives an FPC drone a range of 20 to 30 miles -- considerably further than the line-of-sight range of older R/C aircraft.

Commercial Drones

Drones can be used for both fun and for profit, as many companies and organizations are discovering. There are lots of ways that commercial drones can be employed in day-to-day operations.

For example:

  • Oil and gas companies are looking to use drones to inspect the oil and gas pipelines that crisscross the country.
  • Electric companies are considering drone surveillance of their power lines.
  • Ranchers are using drones to monitor their livestock.
  • Real estate agencies are using simple quadcopters to take aerial photographs of properties for sale.
  • Hollywood filmmakers are using drones to record footage for their films.
  • Advertising agencies are shooting drone footage for use in commercials.
  • Drone are being used to provide coverage for major league sporting events, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Probably the most talked-about commercial use for drone aircraft, however, is in the field of product delivery. Right now, delivery is a big cost center for businesses that sell things online or over the phone; it's also a major expense for food delivery businesses. It's not surprising, then, that businesses as diverse as Amazon and Dominos are all evaluating the potential use of drone aircraft to deliver their products.

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Figure 3 Amazon's Prime Air drone, currently in testing.

Think about it. One relatively low-cost drone could replace not only current delivery personnel but also their trucks and cars. It's also possible that drones might be faster and more accurate than the high school kid with a stack of pizzas in the back seat.

Of course, for drones to be effective delivery vehicles, they have to be smarter than they are today. Your local Chinese restaurant isn't going to employ a team of drone pilots jiggling joysticks in the back room; businesses want to input the delivery address, load up the drone with their product, and let it fly. There's no sense using drones if you just replace one human employee (the delivery guy) with another (the presumably higher-paid drone pilot).

Consider the example of the pizza delivery drone. You call in your order, or place it online, and it's entered into the system at the pizza joint. When the pizza slides out of the oven, it's boxed up and carried over to the drone launch area. The pizza is affixed to the bottom of the next drone in line, which is then fed the delivery address from the store's computer system. The appropriate button is pushed, and the drone lifts off into the night.

The delivery coordinates are in the drone's computer memory, along with aerial maps of the area. The drone can fly pretty much straight-line to your address, although tall buildings and power lines are part of the mapping system, so the drone knows to avoid these types of obstacles. The drone also is equipped with collision avoidance systems, so if there are any other drones (or birds or low flying aircraft) in the area, it will adjust its flight path as necessary.

When the drone arrives at your address, it lands or otherwise drops the pizza on your front doorstep, and texts you that your delivery is ready. You've already paid in advance via credit card, of course, so all you have to do is open the front door, retrieve your pizza, and wave goodbye to the drone as it flies back to home base.

It may sound a little farfetched, but the necessary technologies are all available, and many big companies are testing drone delivery today. There are a lot of bugs to work out (not least of which is getting the Federal Aviation Administration to change current regulations that put the general kibosh on this sort of drone proliferation), but the move to drone delivery is inevitable. There will be a day, not too far in the future, when multiple drones will be buzzing about overhead, delivery pizza and groceries and who know what else. It's coming.

Government Drones

More than fifty different countries have their own drone programs, as do scores of state and local governments and police forces. As it turns out, drone aircraft are terrific tools for both surveillance and attack.

The United States military is one of the, if not the, largest supporters of drone aircraft, to date deploying more than 11,000 drones. The military's drones carry out a variety of missions, from aerial reconnaissance to more controversial remote-controlled combat. Reconnaissance drones are outfitted with high definition cameras; combat drones are outfitted with missiles and bombs. Some experts believe that drones could eventually replace most manned military aircraft, with the corresponding savings of pilot lives.

The military likes drones for a number of reasons. First, they're a lot cheaper than traditional aircraft. Two, they can stay aloft longer than manned aircraft -- several days at a time, in fact. And third, when one crashes, no personnel are hurt or killed.

The most popular drones in the military's arsenal are the hulking MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, both from General Atomics. The Predator, which has a 27-foot wingspan, is typically armed with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. The larger Reaper has a 66-foot wingspan, which makes it more like a traditional aircraft in size than a radio-controlled toy plane. The Reaper's size gives it a maximum speed of 300 mph and a range of 3,200 nautical miles.

Figure 4 The military's MQ-9 Reaper drone.

These hunter-killer drones are launched by ground crews near the conflict zone du jour, then operation is handed over to controllers 7,500 miles away, at the Nellis and Creech Air Force bases in Nevada. There's actually a three-person control crew for each drone, each huddled in front of a bank of video screens. One person flies the drone, another monitors and operates the drone's cameras and sensors, and a third is in constant radio contact with the commanders and troops in the conflict zone. All attack decisions are made manually; there's nothing autonomous in the decision-making process.

Also popular with the military is the considerably smaller (4.5-foot wingspan) Raven drone from AeroVironment. The Raven is used for remote reconnaissance, and is more autonomous than the Predator. After launch (which can be by hand), the drone gets its directions via GPS technology and reports back with a live video feed. These smaller drones can fly for days at a time without much if any human interaction.

Figure 5 Launching the Raven reconnaissance drone.

The armed forces (and the CIA) aren't the only governmental organizations using drones to spy on bad guys. The United States Border Patrol, for example, uses drones to patrol the nation's southern border, keeping a lookout for both illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. The agency favors both Predators and Ravens, and has a $39.4 million budget for aerial surveillance.

Then there's your local police force. Now, it's unlikely that the Bloomington, Indiana, police department is using missile-armed Predators to take out flagrant traffic offenders. But it is possible that they're using drones to spy on suspected criminals, monitor SWAT operations, and maybe even keep a watch on traffic problems.

You can understand the appeal. A basic surveillance drone costs a lot less than a police helicopter -- and can go places where copters can't. Drones can also stay in the air longer without refueling or recharging. What's not to like?

It's not surprising, then, to discover that close to a hundred local and state police agencies have applied to the FAA to deploy drone aircraft in their jurisdictions. But there's a growing backlash against this domestic use of drone technology. Local and state lawmakers across the country have passed or proposed legislation severely limiting how and when law enforcement can use drone aircraft. Not everybody likes the idea of remote-controlled eyes in the sky.

So when you look up and see a four-rotored flying machine hovering overhead, it could be your local police force keeping tabs on rush-hour traffic. Or it could be Dominos delivering a pizza to your neighbor's house. Or it could be your neighbor, shooting video footage of whatever it is you're doing in your backyard. That's easy-to-use and affordable drone technology at work -- anybody can do it.

Michael Miller is a prolific and popular writer. He has written more than 150 non-fiction books over the past twenty-five years, along with numerous articles, blog posts, and instructional videos. His best-selling books include The Internet of Things, The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin, and Computer Basics: Absolute Beginner's Guide.

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