Drones aren’t the menacing aerial overlords they're made out to be – from saving lives to helping make Hollywood films, they’re ready to become man’s best robotic friend.
From headlines about their military antics to memories of Kyle Reese cowering in the searchlights of a ‘Hunter-Killer’ in The Terminator, drones don’t have the most glowing reputation. In fact, they’re often seen as heartless death-hawks with a grudge against humanity.
But while combat drones are rightly controversial beasts, they overshadow the positive and sometimes life-saving work of a growing number of benevolent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Whether it’s helping farmers fertilise their fields, filming spectacular documentaries or finding survivors of natural disasters, drones are ready to rehab their reputation and become our philanthropic worker bees...
Drones are, by their nature, inconspicuous souls that prefer shadows to stagelights. But in January 2012 a team of 20 autonomous quadroters became overnight YouTube stars.
In two videos posted by the Philadelphia company KMel Robotics, they were seen formation flying, organising themselves into a fluid figure of eight and, in a memorable encore, playing the James Bond theme tune on specially modified instruments. More than 10 million views later, drones had garnered a reputation as fun-bots with exciting potential.
They weren’t the first non-military drones to capture the imagination – Parrot’s original gaming AR.Drone was announced as far back as 2010. But after growing bad press about lethal, pilotless military strikes, they were a timely reminder that autonomous bots could yet become a force for good.
Eighteen months later, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approving the first commercial drones in the US and prices plummeting, drones are ready to become familiar faces.
Rise of the robots
Drones didn’t just burst into life like the worker bees they’re named after: perhaps unsurprisingly, their roots are in military research. As far back as 1935, the RAF was testing modified Tiger Moth biplanes which could be flown from the ground and these days the aviation industry has perfected the art, with drones such as the Global Hawk — which weighs 14 tonnes and can fly for 32 hours — carrying out missions the world over.
But just like the birth of computing, where IBM mainframes inspired hobbyists to create desktop computers for fun, so drones have garden-shed enthusiasts too. Online forums such as DIYDrones.com boast over 30,000 users sharing stories about home-made flying machines. “People are really turned on by the technological challenges and understanding that comes with building their own drone,” says Chris Anderson, ex-WIRED editor-in-chief and CEO of DIYDrones.com.
What’s in a drone?
Building your own drone is possible because they’re relatively simple. Sure, they vary: big or small, winged or rotored, cost hundreds of dollars or hundreds of thousands.
But essentially they’re built around an autopilot, made up of a combination of sensors — such as GPS, gyroscopes, and accelerometers — along with a processing unit to interpret the data and control the craft. Strap that autopilot to an airframe, with motors teamed with rotors or wings, and you’re good to go.
If the tech sounds familiar, it’s because you have something similar in your pocket right now. “A drone is essentially a paper plane plus an iPhone,” says Henri Seydoux, CEO of Parrot.
And fortunately, the essential components have been getting better, smaller and cheaper. “We have the mobile phone market to thank,” adds Anderson. “The thirst for better phones has driven down the prices, and improved the quality, of sensors, batteries and chips.”