Everywhere you look in the news, it seems that there’s a story popping up about drones. The military uses drones, the police and other law enforcement agencies, and even ordinary people at home use drones. Now that these strange flying machines are increasingly becoming a part of our life, it’s important to take a step back and examine exactly what drones are, what type of drones currently exist, and what uses people have found for drones.
What are drone?
There are dozens of terms that people use for these flying vehicles, including the ultra-official “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), drone, quadcopter, and “flying robots”. For the purposes of this article, we will use the term “drone” throughout.
The FAA and other aviation authorities separate drones into two categories: a remotely piloted aircraft, meaning that a person is at the controls of the aircraft at all times during flight, or an autonomous aircraft, meaning that an onboard computer is guiding the aircraft. Right now in the United States, autonomous drones are not in use as the technology and regulations are not sufficiently enough advanced.
Therefore, all drones used in America are remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Current FAA law mandates that civilian operators of drones maintain visual contact with their drone at all times.
Military, Police, and Civilian
Generally speaking, military and police drones are divided into aircraft that contain lethal armament and those that do not. Right now, the American military divides its drone fleets into three categories: miniature, tactical, and strategic. Small aircraft that can be carried and operated by a single pilot have been used in close-quarters fighting in recent wars. Tactical drones generally are designed to perform unobtrusive surveillance from greater heights. Strategic drones are used exclusively by the military, as these are the armed aircraft capable of firing a missile or dropping a bomb.
Law enforcement drones are currently all tasked for surveillance purposes, and are used to coordinate ground units in the pursuit of suspects and enforcement of municipal crime reduction strategies. Other law enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol use surveillance drones to provide remote detection and monitoring of sensitive areas.
Who’s investing in drones?
Because a drone can range from a multimillion dollar military weapon to a modified remote-controlled hobbyist aircraft, just about every nation uses drones in some form or another. Right now, the news has been filled with stories about both sides in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine using drones for surveillance and artillery targeting purposes.
However, if you’re strictly speaking about armed drones used by militaries, a total of 11 countries are known to have them:
- United States
- Great Britain
Over a dozen other countries have announced intentions of acquiring advanced armed drones for their military and/or law enforcement agencies.
The History of Drones
Although the first human-powered aircraft was invented in 1903, it only took until the 1930s before the British Royal Navy designed what is considered to be the first military drone. Nicknamed the “Queen Bee”, it was a remote-controlled aircraft used for target practice by RAF pilots.
More modern and lethal drones such as the MQ-1 Predator, designed by General Atomics for the American military, came online in 1995. Predator drones have been used by both the CIA and the American military in almost a dozen different countries.
What’s the Latest in Civilian Drones?
It’d be impossible to stay abreast of all of the latest breakthroughs and developments in civilian drone technology because it seemingly changes from week to week. Right now, all the buzz is about quadcopters, sometimes called “quadrotor helicopters” for the fact that they use vertically-oriented propellers for lift.
Several popular models of quadcopters can be purchased for $300 or a bit more, and the unique design of the quadcopter perfectly balances a lightweight frame with greater stability and more lift. By adding a camera, you can get great aerial shots and unique camera angles.