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Sophisticated Drone Technology Applications in 2023

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.

Image used courtesy of UHN
Image used courtesy of UHN

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.

Predator MQ-1. Image used courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical
Predator MQ-1. Image used courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical

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.

Drone Surveillance

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 Drones

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.

Image used courtesy of Apian/PA
Image used courtesy of Apian/PA

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.

Military Hardware

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.

Drone Surprises

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.

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