Attack of the Drones – why UAVs are taking off in a big way

You too can own a robotic flying machine, and they're not just toys anymore

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...

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.