What Are Drones and How Are They Being Used?

You will no doubt of heard of drones, because they are in the news virtually every day, but what exactly is a drone and why is a drone any different from any other  radio controlled aircraft and, perhaps, more importantly, who is flying these drones, and why?

If you have wondered what drones are and how they might have an impact on your life, read on, and we will explain all you need to know about drones.

What is a drone?
A drone can be defined as any type of unmanned airborne vehicle, which are also known as UAV’s. The term can be applied to any size of aircraft that is flown either by remote control, or autonomously. You could think of a drone as any type of robotic aircraft.

Although drones have only recently been in the news, they are, in fact, nothing new. A modern drone is not all that dissimilar to the radio controlled helicopters and airplanes of the past. In fact, you could call radio controlled planes, helicopters and the modern quadcopters drones as well.

In reality, though, most people are not going to call the old-style radio controlled models drones. The term is more commonly used to describe much larger radio controlled vehicles such as quadcopters that usually fly with cameras on board to take photos or videos.

That is especially the case when people are talking about military drones, which are much bigger than the drones that you can purchase in the stores and which will have been built specifically for military use. Quite obviously, a drone that has been designed to launch missiles is a very different drone to the hobby quadcopters that you can buy.

Military drones also have a much longer flying range than hobby drones and they can be controlled over much longer distances. While most radio controlled aircraft are designed to be flown within the visual range of the pilot, a military drone can be piloted from many thousands of miles away, even from as far away as another continent.

Where can you buy your own drone?
The best place to buy a drone is online, or at a local hobby store. Buying a drone at local store gives you the advantage of having a local retailer who can give you advice if you are new to the hobby, which can be helpful, because not all drones are easy to fly. Alternatively, if you don’t have a local hobby store nearby, you can shop for drones on Amazon or a specialist online hobby website.

Wherever you buy your drone from, it’s a good idea to join a local radio control model club or a drone hobby group. You can learn a lot from other drone flyers and you will be able to participate in organized drone flying events if you join a club.

When you are looking for a drone to buy, you will find that drones usually fall into three main categories. There are ready to fly drones (RTF), which come complete with all you need, there are bind and fly drones (BNF), which don’t come with a radio controller, and there are almost ready to fly drones, (ARF), which are kits that will require some assembly before you will be able to fly them. If you are buying your first ever drone, the ready to fly models are the best choice.

Whichever of the options above you choose, the most popular type of drones today are the helicopter or quadcopter drones, because, while fixed wing radio controlled aircraft are easier to learn to fly, you can’t hover over an object with a fixed wing drone.

The most common types of helicopter drones are quadcopters. They have four rotors that have a fixed pitch, two of which rotate clockwise and two of which rotate anticlockwise.  This configuration gives them much greater stability and makes the very easy to operate.

It is likely that you will also want to add a camera to your drone as well. Some drones simply record images that you can view later, while others have live video feeds that can be viewed in real-time, either on the remote control unit, or via an app on a smartphone. For many people, seeing the bird’s eye view from a drone is where the fun of flying drones really lies.

How are drones used commercially?
While drones are great fun, more and more companies are now exploring the commercial use of drones and there are many ways that drones can be utilized in commercial applications. Here are just some of the ways that drones are being used commercially.

Oil and gas industry
Oil and gas companies have begun to look into the feasibility of using drones to inspect pipelines that run over large distances.

Electric power companies
Electric power companies have begun to use drones to inspect power lines.

Livestock monitoring
Some farmers and ranchers are now using drones to monitor the whereabouts and wellbeing of livestock.

Real estate agents
In real estate, agents are using drones to take aerial photographs of properties that they have on the market for sale.

Drones are now commonplace pieces of equipment on movie sets, where they are used to take stunning aerial sequences.

Advertising industry
You now regularly see aerial footage in TV advertisements that will have been taken from a drone.

Sporting events
Many TV companies are now using drones to cover major sporting events.

Product delivery
The use of drones to deliver products is often in the news at the moment. Companies such as Amazon and Dominos are prototyping drone deliveries, which would greatly reduce the cost of delivering products to the doors of consumers.

Drones have a way to go before they can become a cost effective way to deliver products, but they could eventually cut out the cost of the delivery personnel and the delivery vehicles. To be truly effective, though, the drones would need to be totally automated so that they could deliver products without the need for a human pilot at all.

To do that, though, delivery drones would not only be able to navigate to a given location, they would also need to be able to avoid obstacles and make course alterations when needed. Eventually you may well have your pizza delivered to your door by an automated drone, but we are probably a few years away from that yet.

Having drones flying around delivering products to consumers may seem a bit fanciful, but the technology does exist today to make it possible. The main obstacles in the way are safety and aviation regulations. However, you can be sure that drone deliveries will be coming to your front door very soon!

Government use of drones
Drones are now widely used by governments, both for military purposes and for law enforcement.

The US military is one of the biggest users of drone technology and it already has more than 11,000 drones deployed. Military drones are used for both reconnaissance and surveillance and for remote controlled combat missions.

Drones that are used for reconnaissance are usually kitted out with sophisticated high definition cameras, while the combat drones carry smart bombs and missiles. Some experts are predicting that drones are very likely to eventually eliminate the need for manned military aircraft altogether.

The military prefers to use drones because they are much cheaper than traditional aircraft, they can stay airborne for days at a time and of course,  there is no loss of human life should a drone be shot down.

The most common drones currently used by the military are the MQ-1 Predator, which has a wingspan of 27 feet and is usually armed with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and the MQ-9 Reaper, which has a 66-foot wingspan and is more like a traditional fixed wing aircraft, but without the pilot. The Reaper has a top speed of 300 mph and it has a range of more than 3,000 nautical miles.

Hunter killer drones of this kind are launched nearby the area of conflict by ground crews and then the flight crew, which could be located thousands of miles away in air force bases, take over the operation of the aircraft.

Each drone is operated by a crew of three who work via a video link to the drone. One of the crew flies the drone, another is responsible for operating the drone’s cameras, and a third crew member is in communication with the ground forces in the area of operation. Attack decisions are not made automatically, the decision to strike is made by the crew.

Another drone that is currently in use by the military is the much smaller Raven drone, which has a wingspan of just 4.5 feet. The Raven is more autonomous than the other drones mentioned and it is used for reconnaissance missions. Once it has been launched, the Raven flies using GPS technology and it feeds back live video footage to the ground. Smaller drones like these can fly for days at a time and with very little human intervention.

The military and the intelligence services aren’t the only government bodies that make use of drones. The US Border Patrol, for example, has drones that patrol the southern border of the United States. The US Border Patrol uses both Ravens and Predators to search for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants.

It is also possible that your local police force is using drones. While they may not have armed drones like the military do, they are quite likely to be using drones for surveillance, monitoring operations, and for road traffic monitoring. The appeal to the police forces of drones is that they are a lot less expensive than a manned helicopter and they can stay airborne for much longer periods of time.

It’s no surprise, then, close to 100 US police forces have made applications to the FAA for permits to fly drones in their jurisdictions. There is, however, a growing backlash against the use of drone technology in domestic settings. Laws have been passed in the US limiting how drones may be used by law enforcement agencies. Remote controlled eyes in the skies are not something that everyone is in favor of.

So, the next time you see a quadcopter flying overhead, it could be your neighbor spying on you, it could be a pizza delivery, or it could be the local police monitoring the traffic. The technology is now so accessible and affordable that just about anyone today can own and fly a drone.