What is a drone?

Jon Lawson

The term ‘drone’ relates to any unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPA). The most commonly understood definition of a drone refers to a UAV that is directed by a remote control. However, some non-consumer models can self-navigate.

For a device to be considered a drone, it must not weigh more than 20kg (before fuel is added), including any additional attachments.

Originally utilised for military and space purposes, drones have found their way into consumer markets. Now available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, the purposes for which drones can be used is continually expanding.

Quadcopters are a popular model, particularly within consumer markets. These models consist of four propellers, two of which rotate in a clockwise direction, whilst the other two rotate anti-clockwise, fulfilling Newton's third law of physics.

Military drones

The military application of drones dates back to 1849 when Austrian forces floated approximately 200 balloons each containing a bomb to Venice. 

Today, UK military drones have been used for a variety of applications including:

  • Base perimeter protection and local area reconnaissance

  • IED detection

An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) prototype was produced in 2010 and flight testing has already taken place. There are plans for the model to be operation post-2030. This drone’s design will allow it to take on intercontinental missions with a range of weaponry.

Commercial drones

Commercial drones within the UK have seen exponential growth. In 2010, there were five commercial permissions for operation in place, in 2018 this number grew to 4,530.

Commercial operating permissions must be obtained if a drone is to be used outside the restricted limits of recreational use which are:

  • Flying the drone in a manner that is safe

  • The drone must constantly be within direct sight

  • The drone must not endanger any person or thing. This includes any articles that may be dropped from the drone.

  • Drone flight must not exceed 400ft high

  • Drones must not fly within a 5km Flight Restriction Zone of any protected aerodrome

Alternative uses for drones

There are additional applications for drones outside military and commercial use. These include:

Medical applications

Drones are currently being utilised outside the UK during search and rescue missions thanks to their ability to produce thermal imaging. In August 2019, a bid was placed by the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency to utilise drones within emergency rescue operations, as well as offering ship surveillance off the south-west coast.

In May 2019 a drone delivered a donor kidney to a US hospital. The drone was specially-designed to monitor the organ. With 1.5% of US organs not reaching their destination and just under 4% of organ delivery being delayed, the application of drones could be the breakthrough that transplantation delivery systems need.

Environmental applications

The surveillance application of drones could be utilised to monitor the level of pollution leaking into our waters from vessels, offering aid to law enforcement agencies when required.

Drones could also be utilised to inspect wind turbines, taking 3D images and even videos to offer safer methods of turbine management. 

Agricultural applications include replacing farm machinery that relies on nonrenewable resources to operate. Additionally, they can monitor crops, water levels and livestock.

Infrastructure inspection

UK companies are investing in drones to offer safe access to sites that are large-scale, hazardous or inaccessible to carry out inspections and surveys.

Surveys can now be carried out in a fraction of the time it takes for traditional surveys to be delivered. They are currently being utilised within the property and construction industry and the rail and infrastructure industry.

Delivery systems

In 2016, Amazon carried out a successful trial of drones as a delivery system. Whilst they have not began delivering our goods via drone yet, there is certainly an opportunity for it.

The danger of drones

Whilst drones have many positive applications, a Commercial and Recreational Drone Use in the UK report from the House of Commons suggests there are also some real threats including:

  • Drones colliding with aircrafts

  • Drones being used to spy on neighbours and others

  • The opportunity for drones to be used as terrorist weaponry

The future of drones

A recent report predicted that the UK drone industry would employ 628,000 individuals by 2030, with a positive £42 billion net impact on the country’s economy.

There is scope for the UK to further invest in drone use to positively impact the commercial, medical and environmental industry.

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