By Seth Mayo, Curator of Astronomy
If you have ever heard a loud buzz in the sky and noticed a small oddly-shaped aircraft zipping around effortlessly, you are one of many that have encountered a drone. You may even own one yourself, taking advantage of this rapidly developing technology that allows you to conquer the airspace just above your head.
Colloquially known as a drone in the public sphere, these vehicles are defined as an aircraft without a human on board. Even though drones can represent vehicles that operate in the water or on the ground, they are commonly associated with aviation, with many today designed as small multicopters (multiple rotor blades) with some type of attached camera system. They can also be remotely-controlled or operated autonomously, depending on the particular design.
Within professional aviation, governmental institutions, and academia, a drone is typically known as an unmanned (also uncrewed) aerial vehicle, or UAV. If you include the UAV, ground systems, communications, controls, and any other related technology, the entire package is collectively called an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS.
The 21st century ushered in a new era for UAVs as they exploded in popularity and availability, when stabilization systems were advanced, computers and hardware miniaturized, batteries became more efficient, and costs plummeted. Stabilization advancements became supremely important in this accessibility, allowing almost any shape of vehicle to be designed without as much concern for aerodynamics, enabling anyone to fly them with ease. Small, remote-controlled airplanes have been a hobbyist favorite for many decades, but the skill required to fly these aircraft and high costs to maintain their equipment, have been a major barrier to entry for most of the general public.
With this explosion of popularity and increased accessibility, aviation regulation in the U.S. and around the world has only just begun to take hold as concerns for the public's safety on the ground, collisions with other aircraft and property, and privacy issues are now being fully realized. In the last decade, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began to limit where and when drones could be operated, requiring many to be registered above a certain size, and even mandating pilot certification in certain use cases.
With all of this considered, drones have found a huge niche in our society when it comes to their applications. UAVs have buzzed their way into almost every industry and commercial enterprise, and are even finding use off-world in tantalizing ways.
There are now a multitude of reasons why drones are being used today.
As with many advanced technologies, the history of drones primarily began with military applications. The term “drone” may have derived in the early 20th century when the use of the word referred to the British DH 82B Queen Bee - an aircraft radio-controlled from the ground and used as target practice.
Real wartime use began in World War II, as flights of radio-operated aircraft to drop bombs on various targets were attempted and remote-controlled missiles began being launched.
Military drones, as we know them currently in the U.S., really saw deployment in the 1990s during the Gulf War since the burgeoning Global Positioning System (GPS) could be relied upon, and advancements in computer technology had increased their capabilities.
Shortly after the Gulf War, the Predator, Global Hawk, and Reaper drones became well known as remotely-controlled reconnaissance and missile-launching aircraft in modern conflicts around the world - now collectively called unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or UCAVs.
These vehicles look more like traditional aircraft without an onboard cockpit, and have been relied upon to alleviate risk to a pilot's (known as an unmanned aerial pilot) life while being flown from an alternate location without the constraints of normal human endurance.
UAVs have found a critical role in many different industries and for very unique reasons.
In farming and agriculture, drones have been flown to survey land for potential crops, and some are deployed to scatter seeds and fertilizer over large areas very quickly and efficiently. Utilizing GPS, laser guidance systems, and various sensors and cameras, they can be programmed to autonomously complete this work with minimal human interaction.
In more dangerous situations, drones can be vital during inspection operations. High transmission power lines that crisscross large swaths of uninhabited areas need to be check from time-to-time, and using drones to assist with this work has shown to lower costs and provide a safer way to do so.
The same goes for the long stretches of oil pipelines that are in very remote areas, and inspection by drones using infrared cameras has been quite useful.
In the green industry, large solar farms and even wind turbine blades have benefited from UAVs as they can access hard to reach areas for inspection in a timely manner. The tedious nature of many of these operations can be eliminated by sending a drone up to take care of the work.
To expand their reach even more, Amazon has been developing a drone package delivery system known as Prime Air, which aims to bring goods purchased by customers within 30 minutes of the order time. This program is still being assessed by the FAA and has yet to be fully implemented.
As drone vehicles continue to be miniaturized, so have imaging technology. High resolution cameras are quite common and can easily fit aboard even the smallest of drones.
Journalism has certainly benefited from this technology, where cameras can be sent to very unique, and sometimes dangerous locations to capture the right shot for the story.
Not only are the cameras very small, but drones that utilize multiple rotors can take advantage of very effective stabilization systems that are built into the computer hardware. This means that footage from the air - even when the drones are moving at high speed and in different directions - can remain perfectly smooth.
This type of technology has been a major boon for filmmaking of all types, where helicopters carrying a film crew or cameras perched on large cranes were the only solutions in the past. Residential photography for the real estate industry and promotional shots of local businesses from the air have been in high demand for drone operators for some time.
Shooting video and still images for large gatherings like concerts, sporting events, and even weddings, have relied upon drones to capture every moment with ease and from interesting perspectives.
First flown in 1998, the U.S. Air Force Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is still relied upon as a remotely-controlled
reconnaissance drone that is suited for very high altitude, long duration flights. Piloting these vehicles from the
ground has alleviated the constraints of human endurance without the risk to life. Global Hawks have
also been used extensively by NASA for hurricane and severe storm studies under the HS3 mission.
Image Credits: U.S. Air Force / Bibbi Zapka / NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center
Extra eyes in the sky have also found their way into police departments and search and rescue teams across the U.S.
As cost saving is a common theme among many of these applications, drones have been used as an alternative - or at least as support - for full size helicopters that would typically be used by police for various operations.
Following major disasters, particularly floods and hurricanes, drones have even been lifesaving as they are flown to hazardous areas to search for survivors that need to be rescued. These aerial vehicles can serve as the first wave of support as a natural disaster can render an area very dangerous for search teams.
Assessing damage after a hurricane or a tornado have made UAVs an important tool in the recovery and rebuilding process as well.
The drone market is particularly geared toward those who use drones as recreation. Just as a hobbyist would fly RC airplanes (which an be categorized as a UAV) for enjoyment, so can the modern-day drone that can be easily purchased online and at very low price.
Many of these affordable drones allow the operator to use their own phone as a remote control and have been adapted for most ages and skill levels.
For many, being able to fly around to get a bird's eye view of a nearby area via the onboard camera, is worth the experience.
This idea has been taken to the next level with the relatively new sport of drone racing, which traces its roots back to Germany in 2011.
Very small and high powered drones have cameras attached to the front of the vehicle, and a drone pilot on the ground can wear a head mounted display to provide a first-person view as the race through obstacles at outdoor arenas and even inside large warehouses at very high speed. This quickly growing sport is known as FPV (first-person view) drone racing, and is becoming quite popular as the technology is improving and the price of entry is going down.
Another relatively new form of skyward entertainment, are the elaborate aerial dances that can be choreographed by hundreds of tiny drones fitted with LED lights. Using advanced computer control and AI, it is now possible for amazing light displays to be shown as the drones move around quickly in tight formation, collectively creating interesting shapes and figures that seem to defy physics.
Perhaps the most cutting edge and exciting use of drones are their application in spaceflight and Solar System exploration.
Almost any robotic spacecraft traveling millions of mile through space without a human on board could be considered a drone, but there are some recent vehicles that fit the bill a little more closely.
A top secret spaceplane, known as the Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, has been launched on orbital flights around the Earth. This space UAV looks like a miniature Space Shuttle, and is designed fairly similarly as it is launched like a rocket and lands back on Earth as a glider, all without a human pilot. So far, there have been six flights of these vehicles, with some of them staying in orbit for more than a year. The X-37B is operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, and its activities and objectives are still highly classified. Although this program is shrouded in secrecy, it has highlighted how UAVs in space may be useful in the future.
One of the most exciting, and drone-like, vehicles currently off the Earth is the Ingenuity helicopter drone that was carried aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed successfully on Mars on February 18, 2021.
This planetary drone consists of a small fuselage in the shape of a cube, with four small legs and two large counter-rotating carbon fiber blades on top. Engineers designed the rotor blades to be quite long for the drone’s size, and to rotate much faster than a typical helicopter due to the very thin Martian atmosphere. The surface of Mars is like being 100,000 feet up in Earth’s atmosphere, so this drone had to be built to operate in that type of environment. Ingenuity has made a series of short flights and taken images from the air as reconnaissance, mostly serving as a technology demonstrator for future vehicles that may fly on the Red Planet.
On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity made the first successful powered flight on Mars as it rose up in the air for 39 seconds, reaching a height of 10 feet above the surface. This became the “Wright Brothers” moment for powered flight on another planet.
NASA also has plans to reach even farther out into the Solar System by sending a drone to one of Saturn's moons. Still in development is the Dragonfly mission, which will bring a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) drone to the surface of the moon, Titan, possibly by 2036.
Titan is a unique landscape, with a thick nitrogen atmosphere, covered with lakes of methane, and holding possible subsurface water. The Dragonfly drone will be able to fly to scientifically important locations on this cold, but interesting world, to study its geology and chemistry and assess its potential for habitability.
There are countless more applications and uses of UAVs throughout many different areas of our lives, and this will continue to be so in the future. As we grapple with the implications of this technology over time, it will certainly be interesting to watch how these vehicles will be integrated into our society - on Earth and beyond.
To explore the fascinating world of drones, our new temporary exhibit, Eyes in the Sky: The World of Aerial Drones, running from May 8th to August 1st, will provide a closer look at how this technology is used in our everyday lives through various displays and UAVs within our Ford Gallery.
*The Eyes in the Sky exhibit is in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Special thanks to the GE Volunteers, Spirit Drone Services, Gary Duce, and DeltaMaker, for their contributions to the project.