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Drones assume non-military roles

09 Feb 2015  | Rich Quinnell

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have been known for their negative uses as

weapons, invaders of privacy or annoying toys. Now, drones are slowly becoming an important in a number of applications, which then attracts investors and makes them a hot prospect for 2015.

Unlike traditional radio-controlled (RC) hobbyist aircraft, UAVs exercise a great deal of autonomy in their operation even though they might have a (remote) human pilot. Sensors and on-board computing, for instance, automatically stabilise the UAV's flight in the presence of wind and other perturbations, eliminating the need for flying skills. Some UAVs are even able to follow pre-defined flight plans or automatically return to their launch point without additional human intervention at all. UAVs are to RC aircraft what CNC machines are to manual lathes; a robotic version.

And robots designs are proliferating. In the last year, we have seen robots for farming, search and rescue, and law enforcement as well as a continuing stream of industrial robots. UAVs are simply another genre in the robotics field, and one that is gathering increasing interest.

In a recent webcast on Investing in Robots by Robotics Business Review, UAVs—drones—were a centre of discussion. One online survey conducted among participants had drones emerge as the top investment idea for 2015. More than 40 per cent of respondents expressed investment interest in drones, well ahead of consumer, industrial and medical robotics.

Commercial applications of drones are responsible for much of the interest. According to venture capital firm Foundry Group founder Brad Feld, speaking at the webinar, "drones are at the sweet spot" in an ongoing transfer of technology from military to commercial purposes. He pointed out that in the last 24 months commercial drones have undergone dramatic evolution.

Many of the present commercial applications for drones are echoes of their military duties. Drones are being used for surveying and mapmaking, in situation assessment in disaster relief operations, wildfires, and the like, and for search-and-rescue of missing persons in wilderness areas. But other uses are also appearing. Both Google and Amazon have been experimenting with the use of drones for rapid delivery of goods, BP is using drones for oil pipeline inspection, and drones are helping farmers monitor vast acres of cropland as well as assess growth characteristics so as to better target fertilising and watering efforts.

The operation of drones often falls under the jurisdiction of governmental agencies such as the FAA, which seek to control the shared use of airspace. And abuses of drones have stirred up a backlash of public opinion against them, resulting in restrictions that could throttle market growth. These issues are challenges that the nascent drone industry will need to overcome, but there is hope. Agencies such as the Small UAV Coalition and the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) are providing public relations and legislative support to the industry, seeking to ensure that appropriate regulations get formulated.

Meanwhile, commercial drone developers are beginning to abound. Click on the following pages to see a slideshow of representative drones and their applications at work in the skies today.

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