As drones become more sophisticated and affordable, they are finding a variety of new, and sometimes surprising, applications.
March 16, 2023 byKevin Clemens
Drones have been around for more than a century, but their use by the military and in civilian recreational and commercial activities has increased dramatically in the past five years. A drone, sometimes called an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is defined as a pilotless craft that can operate either by remote control by an operator on the ground or autonomously through onboard sensors and control software.
Shooting at Zeppelins
Drones got their start during the first World War when Great Britain developed a pilotless winged aircraft known as the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target. The rudimentary radio control system was based upon original designs created by Nikola Tesla. Its purpose was to act as a flying bomb to defend against German Zeppelin attacks.
The project was scrapped after several unsuccessful tests, but the idea stuck around, and by World War II, thousands of radio-controlled OQ-2 target drones were built for the U.S. Army to train soldiers to shoot down enemy aircraft.
The U.S. and USSR Cold War during the 1950s and 1960s saw surveillance and reconnaissance drones used by both sides.
Modern Military Drone Applications
The modern use of battlefield drones came into play in 1982 when the Israeli Air Force used reconnaissance, communication-jamming, and weapon-carry drones in their battles with Syrian forces. Since then, military applications have included combat surveillance missions, typically flown by remote control by a pilot who might be thousands of miles away, and more aggressive offensive actions, highlighted by the now-retired U.S. MQ-1 Predator drone that was capable of identifying and killing targets hundreds of miles from its launch point.
The Russian and Ukraine militaries are both extensively using a variety of offensive drones in the current war in Ukraine.
Federal, state, and local governments and law enforcement agencies use drones for border surveillance, disaster relief, search and rescue, and fighting wildfires. Major commercial applications include everything from inspecting pipelines, spraying fields with farm chemicals, and monitoring inaccessible or dangerous areas, to photographing real estate and providing high-angle video shots used in documentaries, feature motion pictures, and television coverage of sporting events.
Most jobs that used to be accomplished by the use of a helicopter can now be done much cheaper and more safely using an unmanned drone. The market for commercial drone services has been predicted to grow to more than $63 billion by 2025.
Drones can come in all sizes, from recreational versions smaller than a hand weighing only a few ounces to long-range pilotless aircraft that can weigh several tons. The largest drones look like small aircraft and take off and land takes place on improvised landing strips or an airport runway. They can operate hundreds of miles and can be operated by a remotely located human or can be flown autonomously using onboard satellite navigation and sensors.
Typically, the propellors for large fixed-wing drones are powered by small internal combustion engines (ICEs), jet engines, or electric motors powered by battery systems.
Vertical Takeoff and Landing
More common are smaller drones that use several electric motors to power individual propellers that provide thrust for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and hovering capability. The amount of energy required for flight limits the payload weight and flight time to what can be stored in the drone’s battery. Hybrid drones with wings for horizontal flight coupled with ducted fans or propellors for VTOL and hovering have also been produced. It comes down to choosing the right drone for the job at hand.
Delivery of goods by drones is an application that is rapidly expanding. In 2013, Amazon announced that it was investigating the use of drones to deliver some of the more than 1.6 million packages it delivers daily. The other package delivery and major retail companies soon followed suit with their own drone delivery projects.
Since then, although delivery drones have not yet been used for long-distance deliveries, they have found limited application for so-called “last-mile” deliveries or employee-to-employee deliveries within a company or facility.
Drones are also finding applications in the medical field where rapid delivery of human organs or critical drugs over short distances can save lives. The British National Health Service (NHS) plans to use a fleet of drones to deliver critical chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer. The first trial between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight cuts the delivery the three-or-four-hour delivery time by ferry to 30 minutes when the drone is used.
In September of 2021, a lung needed for a transplant was sent via a remotely piloted drone between two hospitals in Toronto, Canada. The two hospitals are around 1.24 miles apart, and the flight time was about five minutes. The Chinese-made drone was modified by removing its landing gear and payload system so that a specially designed organ transport box could be carried. The electronic flight systems were also modified to ensure that the drone would not be adversely affected by interference. An emergency parachute system was added, along with additional lights, cameras, and tracking systems. The total weight of the medical delivery drone was about 55 pounds.
A 63-year-old patient received the lung, and everything went smoothly—the team had practiced the flight between the two hospitals beginning in 2019 more than 400 times to ensure there would be no problems.
In some ways, these high-profile drone deliveries seem more stunts than necessary delivery methods. However, as city streets become more congested (ironically often with delivery vehicles), flying over mired ground transportation looks more enticing.
Drone Technology Prices Falling
The technology prices for commercial and hobbyists are dropping dramatically—a small hand-launched electric drone can be purchased for as little as $50, and a more useful drone with a high-definition video camera and even equipped with virtual reality can cost a little more than $100. Some are so small that they can safely fly indoors in a room crowded with people. It’s possible to buy a drone that will follow you down a ski slope or along a mountain bike path, providing a point-of-view that would be nearly impossible to obtain any other way. There is even a drone racing league.
FAA Rules for Drones
With so many drones buzzing through the skies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established rules for all drone usage and required licenses for commercial drone operators. Drone operation is limited or curtailed in national parks and most city parks, and it is illegal to operate a drone in a way that harasses wildlife or to spy on a neighbor. Moving forward, we can expect hobbyist, civilian, and commercial drones to have greater capability, more sophisticated electronic controls, and greater flight times and payload capabilities even as the skies become more cluttered with unmanned pilotless vehicles.
On the military side, it is hard to know what capability drones currently have as that information is largely classified. Still, it is safe to assume future developments will include faster, bigger, and more powerful aircraft that can be remotely piloted or autonomously guided.
The limiting factor in the flight envelope of a fighter jet, for example, is frequently the physiological limitations of the human pilot. Removing the pilot from the cockpit and placing them in a command center thousands of miles from the battle scene is becoming a likely future scenario.
The further use of artificial intelligence (AI) to help guide and navigate a military to a drone and determine if the target is accessible is already an implemented part of the plan that will only grow as weapons become more sophisticated.
As inexpensive as drones have become, it’s relatively simple to buy one over the Internet and see for yourself how easy they are to fly and how much fun they can be for aerial photography, getting a higher perspective, or just zooming around local fields and forests. You might even find an application for your job or business that you hadn’t anticipated. Of course, it’s important to follow the rules and regulations, but it has never been easier to access your private eye in the sky.
Aug 2, 2022
The UK says its new 265 kilometre drone superhighway will be the world’s biggest.
Strict regulations will be put in place to ensure safety and avoid collisions with conventional aircraft.
Research suggests the further integration of drones into the UK economy could create more than $50 billion of growth and create over 650,000 jobs.
UK is looking to expand drone use by creating what it says will be the world’s biggest “drone superhighway”.
Drones were first developed for military use, but they’re increasingly being put to work in very different ways. Unmanned aerial vehicles – as they are also known – have been adopted for everything from delivering goods and medicines to monitoring forest fires and providing aerial photography.
Drone flight has been strictly regulated in many parts of the world to prevent collisions with manned aircraft. But the UK is looking to expand drone use by creating what it says will be the world’s biggest “drone superhighway”. This will be a 265 kilometre air corridor that will connect towns and cities in southern and central England.
How the drone superhighway will work
Drone operators will have to sign up to use the superhighway, which will operate at an altitude below the UK’s regular flight corridors. It will use ground-based sensors to detect other forms of aviation, so that light aircraft and helicopters can pass through it safely. If drones do somehow get close to aircraft, they could be instructed to change their flightpath or even land.
There are many potential uses for the drone superhighway, aviation technology company Altitude Angel’s chief operating officer Chris Forster told BBC News. “Whether it be a business doing logistics, all the way to the police and medical deliveries of vaccines and blood samples, there's a real demand to have access to this airspace."
Building a drone economy
The plan is part of $325 million of measures by the UK to boost aerospace innovations. Proposed schemes include using drone monitoring to make motorways safer, including by spotting hazards to improve journey times.
Delivering mail and medicines to more remote parts of the UK such as the islands off its southwestern tip are also in the planning stages. The government says such projects could create up to 8,800 jobs.
Drones have delivered post to the Isles of Scilly off the southwest of the UK. Image: Royal Mail
Research commissioned by the government estimates that drones could contribute more than $50 billion to the UK economy by 2030. It also says “an economy that fully adopts drones” could create 650,000 jobs.
“Through funding for the latest in green technology, such as solar and hydrogen-powered aircraft, and setting out our vision for the fast-growing market for commercial drones, we are once again placing the aerospace sector directly at the centre of our plans to deliver jobs and grow the economy,” says UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
Drones could create many long-term benefits for the UK economy. Image: PwC
What could drones do?
The increased use of drones will have many other benefits too, the UK government says. In the short term, it expects drones to become the industry standard for inspecting buildings, power lines, offshore energy facilities, roads, railways and industrial infrastructure.
In the medium term, it thinks drone shipments of emergency and medical goods will increase, along with wider delivery services to remote areas. Crop-spraying drones for use in agriculture will also proliferate.
And in the longer term, an estimated 900,000 drones could provide essential services to power the economy, improve supply chains and logistics. Passenger air taxis are also predicted to emerge by 2030.
Drones could help reduce CO2 emissions
Fully integrating drones into the economy could reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by up to 2.4 million tons – that’s the equivalent of taking 1.7 million diesel cars off the road, government-funded research says.
These savings would come from reduced use of traditional aircraft and because inspection engineers and emergency workers would no longer need to drive as much to make routine assessments or respond to incidents. A rise in drone deliveries would also reduce conventional road vehicle use.
The UK’s National Health Service has already started using drones to deliver chemotherapy. Image: NHS
The World Economic Forum launched its Medicine from the Sky initiative to deliver vaccines and medicines to rural communities in India. More than 300 vaccine delivery trials have already been completed, and there are plans to expand and reach more communities.
BY ZACC DUKOWITZ
15 February 2023
When it comes to using drones for commercial applications, battery life is one of the biggest limiting factors.
Extending battery life has proved a tough challenge, and one that the drone industry has been laboring away at for years.
All this work has produced steady progress, with battery life steadily increasing. But the gains in flight time for drones that fly using your standard LiPo batteries have been relatively small despite all the work put into extending them.
Some less common approaches to powering drones have been tested, and seem promising. One is using hydrogen fuel cells, and tests have also been made with powering drones using gasoline (though these don’t seem to have gone anywhere).
Of course, you can also use a tether to send power up to the drone, allowing it to stay aloft as long as you want—but this means the drone has to remain stationary, since it’s leashed to the ground by the tether.
But there may be a way to power drones from a removed power source without having to tether them to ground.
That’s right—we’re talking about powering drones with lasers.
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
NEW BREAKTHROUGHS FOR LASER-POWERED DRONES
The idea of using lasers as a power source for drones has been around for at least a decade.
But new research conducted by scientists at the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in China has been making the news lately, showing progress in work toward making this technology viable.
The team of researchers at NPU have equipped a drone with a module that converts light energy into electricity, allowing it to capture power from a high-energy laser beam so it can stay in flight indefinitely.
The researchers have dubbed these UAVs optics-driven drones (ODDs).
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
Of course, for this laser-powering method to work the laser needs to be able to automatically track the drone.
For this reason, the researchers have made the laser adaptive and given it the ability to track its target—the photoelectric conversion module on the bottom of the drone—using an “intelligent visual tracking algorithm.”
According to NPU researchers, the algorithm has proven effective in a variety of environments, as well as differing light and weather conditions.
The lasers used to power the drone also have an adaptive technology that allows them to shape their beams autonomously, adjusting intensity as needed based on the distance the drone is from the power source and in instances where an object is detected between the laser beam and the drone.
The laser-power drone technology was recently tested on a small quadcopter. Tests were conducted outside at night and inside with both the lights on and off.
In the tests, the drone reaches a height of just about 33 feet in the air (see below for images from the tests).
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
So far the NPU system has proven to be pretty inefficient, losing about 50% of the energy transmitted from the laser.
But it works.
And that may be all that matters right now, given that electricity is fairly inexpensive and that the approach allows the drone to can stay in the air indefinitely.
OTHER LASER-CHARGING DRONE PROJECTS
Here’s a quick rundown of other noteworthy efforts to charge drones with lasers.
In 2012, U.S.-based PowerLight (formerly known as LaserMotive), demonstrated its wireless drone charging system by keeping a large drone in the air for 48 hours in a wind tunnel.
The system was also used to power a Lockheed Martin Stalker drone outdoors at a range of 1,970 feet in the air.
Today PowerLight says it’s working on long-range, lightweight wireless laser power transmission system. Watch the video below to learn more.
DARPA’s Drone Laser Project
In 2018, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced a program called the Stand-off Ubiquitous Power/Energy Replenishment—Power Beaming Demo (SUPER PBD).
The goal of the program was to test technology that would charge aircraft while in flight using laser beams.
In DARPA’s approach, the aircraft has solar panels in its wings and batteries in its fuselage. At first the batteries provide power to the aircraft, but as they run down a laser beam is pointed at the craft’s solar panels, allowing it recharge and stay in flight.
DARPA selected a UAS called Silent Falcon made by a company of the same name for its laser tests.
Credit: Silent Falcon
In 2018, a startup called LakeDiamond made news for its idea to use lab-grown diamonds to recharge drones while in flight.
The diamonds allow laser beams to maintain strength over a long distance, letting them recharge photovoltaic cells on the surface of the drone. In LakeDiamond’s laser, the light produced by a diode is directed at a booster composed of reflective material, an optical component, and a small metal plate to absorb the heat.
THE BENEFITS OF CHARGING DRONES WITH LASERS
So why would you want to charge drones with lasers?
The obvious benefit is that you would no longer have to worry about battery life. Using lasers, you could hypothetically have a drone that could fly for as long as you wanted.
But there are specific use cases that would benefit from having a drone that can fly for a very long time—maybe even forever.
Here they are:
Disaster relief. During time-consuming emergency missions, like searching for victims after a flash flood or earthquake, the ability to have a drone remain in the air for long periods of time could be extremely helpful.
Traffic control. Traffic never stops, and continuously flying drones could be used to monitor traffic and help improve safety on the roads.
Security patrols. Security concerns are in place every hour of the day, a fact that supports the idea of having a constant “eye in the sky” to monitor the security of a building or perimeter.
Flying satellites. Laser-powered drones could be used for higher altitude drone operations, in which drones basically act like small low-altitude satellites.
The last one sounds a little unlikely, but it does reveal the places our imagination can take us when a drone is no longer limited by how long it can stay in the air.
Who knows—maybe we’ll see laser-powered drones rolled out within our lifetime. Results from the research being conducted today certainly makes it seem like a strong possibility.