The drone: Real-world applications taking shape

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Drone in flight Together magazine

Our technology guy Colin Moors looks at the impact of the robot drone buzzing above our heads.

You have probably noticed how, recently, the summer wasps and flies have given way to a new form of aerial attacker – the drone.  This season’s must-have gadget has really captured the imagination of nature watchers, would-be spies and a host of other assorted people besides. They are the ultimate boy’s toy and the new public enemy number one, depending on who you’re talking to. I’m here this month to demystify the drone and allow you to decide for yourself.

A drone, for the purpose of this article, isn’t the sort of thing that a US president would send down the chimney of an alleged bad guy in order to deliver exploding death but rather the more innocuous buzzing things with four propellers and an inept handler you will have seen in the local park. Or, if you’re unlucky, your garden.

December’s New Scientist estimates that around 1 million Americans will have found a drone from Santa Claus in their Christmas stocking. Extrapolating those figures to include Europe, it would be safe to assume that between two and three million will be on the loose by the time you read this. They also report that a man from Nottingham (UK) was the first in the country to be prosecuted for “drone-related charges”. We’re all adults here, aren’t we? I think we can guess what he was up to.

With this in mind, what could a drone legitimately be used for? Well, for a start, there’s drone racing. Once a minority sport for serious nerds only, drone racing is likely to take off (pun intended) this year as more people wonder just what the hell to do with their new toy. The good news is that if you really can fly one well, you could be in with the chance of picking up a $25,000 top prize, as one competitor did in Sacramento last summer.

The real-world applications are only just beginning to take shape, however. Some farmers are using the larger, more expensive ones to monitor their crops and the things that are trying to eat them using HD cameras.  There are fledgling applications in the fields of medicine and disaster relief too, with drones being used to survey disaster areas, assess dangerous situations prior to medical and emergency teams being dispatched and even being used to deliver vital supplies like food, water and defibrillation equipment. Structural engineers are saving hundreds of thousands of euros by using camera-equipped drones to check out damage and cracks in structures and are able to assess damage without the need for expensive scaffolding.

Oh yes, all these ideas are very worthy but I have two firm favourites. The first is a South African company, Darkwing Aerials, that pioneered the process that drones were undoubtedly made for – beer delivery. At the OppiKoppi music festival in Limpopo in late 2013, beer was delivered to order by drones. Naturally, the beer was safely packaged in a plastic cup to avoid any danger (and litigation) and floated gracefully down by parachute. To further avoid complications, the service and beer were free. Although the drone locked onto the coordinates of the thirsty festivalgoer’s mobile phone, wind shear could easily have delivered it to someone else. Darkwing also make some pretty cool videos using their drones too (www.darkwingaerials.com).

The second is the possibility to weave buildings. That’s right – strange though it may sound, if a building framework exists drones can be programmed to weave metal cables across and around it, creating a structure ready for concrete or other building materials. Developed by Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, the system has been well received by everyone except the general public, who seem to not be able to rid themselves of the notion that this technology is a mere stepping stone to flying mechanical spiders. I blame the TV.

Predator Drone
A Predator drone in US Air Force base in summer 2011.

The potential for abuse is quite high and there have been numerous problems with even the smallest drones flying within 30 metres or so of commercial aircraft and less dangerously but perhaps more publicly reported is the banning of drones from skiing events following the near-hit on Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher in December of last year. So you’d think “there must be a law against it”.

You’d be right. And wrong. Because they have only been around a few years and only really popular in the past 18 months or two years, there is very little in the way of regulation. Obviously, spying on people in their homes and gardens is as illegal as if you were there in person, this much seems clear. A quick Google search will reveal one of the top questions about drones: “It’s bothering me, can I shoot it?” Spoiler: No, you can’t.

As far as US law (as set down by the Federal Aviation Administration) goes, a drone can be flown over your property as long as certain height and weight constraints are met.  Provided these conditions are true, a drone is considered a civil aircraft, and we don’t need reminding what a dim view the law takes on shooting down civil aircraft.

Have fun with your new drone, race your friends and try not to get any (more) pictures of Jennifer Lawrence in her birthday suit and we’ll all be just fine.