Flight for the masses
Plummeting costs means drones are becoming available to the everyday punter. Just as IBM seized on hobbyists’ interpretations of mainframes to sell PCs to the masses, so the aviation industry is doing the same with drones. “What captures the imagination of the customer is to fly,” explains Seydoux. “Flying looks so beautiful and simple.”
Whether it’s a Parrot AR Drone 2.0 that lets you play augmented reality or a fixed-wing Lehmann L100 carrying a GoPro camera, the market’s flooding with automated flying machines, many of which can be controlled via your smartphone or tablet. Getting there hasn’t been easy, though.
“A big part is safety and reliability,” explains Jonathan Downey, CEO at Airware, which offers a development platform for drones. “You have to walk the line of using low-cost sensors available in commercial products and then wrapping that up in software that accounts for failures and deals with them in a reliable way.”
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The perfect payload
In fact, that’s exactly what sets the £20,000 drones – made by companies such as Microdrones and Draganfly and used by pros – apart from those available in the shops. Sure, commercial drones can fly for about an hour rather than a few minutes and are made using more expensive components, but it’s reliability that expert users demand.
The most exciting thing about drones, though, is what they can carry. We’re not talking bombs or missiles here, but high-res cameras, laser scanners, and other exotic imaging systems strapped to their undercarriage, the data from which is beamed back to the ground. And the more expensive the drone, the better the sensors. So while the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 packs a 720p HD digital camera, a pro drone such as the Draganflyer X6 could come kitted out with an infrared thermal imaging system.
Being put to work
Dripping in tech bling as they are, it’s no surprise that drones are being put to task on some big projects. Remember the motorbike chase in Skyfall? You have drones to thank. “Directors often want a grand vista as well as intimate detail,” explains Haik Gazarian, director of operations for Flying-Cam, a company that’s supplied drones for James Bond, Harry Potter, and, er, Smurfs 2. “The only way to achieve it is to get close up to the action. Drones offer a safe and reliable way to do that.”
And films are far from their only new workplaces. In July 2013, the first fleet of autonomous marine drones was tested in Toulon as part of the MORPH project, with the aim of creating underwater 3D maps and providing surveillance. The agricultural industry is embracing them, too. “A farmer’s field will be a daily updated Google map,” explains Seydoux.
“With a good camera, he’s able to see every tree or every plant.” The result is better crop management — and big savings. There’s no shortage of applications: from chasing poachers to mapping disaster zones, inspecting structures and delivering food, drones are versatile vehicles.