Droning on: The Past, Present, and Future of Drone Technology

Nowadays it’s hard to visit any news website without seeing a story of some new drone technology. We’ve heard tales of drone delivery boys for Amazon, drone spies and even drone orchestras – see the awesome video below! But how did the new golden child of technology come about? And what does drone technology hold for us in the future?

Youtube | University of Pennsylvania

Back to basics

Well, most historians think that the first unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs for short) were produced in 1849. You see, Venice used to be under Austrian rule, but the locals weren’t too thrilled about this and decided to revolt. Their uprising created some pretty irritated Austrian generals and ignited an intense siege on the city. The Austrian army loaded up balloons with explosives and shrapnel to fly over Venice, fitted with timed fuses. Unfortunately, wind directions meant the balloons didn’t quite have the intended impact, several exploding in Austrian territory! Still, they probably contributed to the Austrian victory in some way, even if most of the world didn’t pay much attention at the time.

Fast forward a few years and in comes a familiar name – Nikola Tesla (check out this slightly NSFW ode to the big guy!). Widely regarded as the father of drone technology, he patented a ‘method of and apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles’ in May, 1898. He recognised the potential of drones for all sorts of things; exploration, communications, warfare and even ‘the killing of whales and other sea creatures’. Whilst drones may not have made a name for themselves as cetacean assassins, Tesla did a great job of predicting the huge impacts that UAVs have had in other fields, even if they haven’t brought the world peace that he believed they would.

In the early 1900s came the rise of military drones, led by the American Ketterbug. This was an unmanned aerial torpedo, developed in secret by the US military for use in WWI, although the war was over before they could really be used in battle. The idea of being able to attack remotely had obvious appeals, and as the second world war dawned, drone technology progressed in leaps and bounds.

Future perspectives

Nowadays, although drones are still sometimes thought of as synonymous with the military, civilians are getting a taste of the fun too. By far the most popular non-military drone is the quadcopter, which has been adapted for many uses (just see this awesome flying cat!). Drones are used for film and photography, search and rescue, topological surveys and as delivery systems. One of the most recent applications is in the delivery of essential medical equipment to remote communities. So drones have become a tool for not only destruction but life-giving and pure entertainment. But what comes next?

Well, there are three main factors that will probably shape the future of drones. The first of these are apps. As the drone hardware improves, software and extras are catching up, and the functionality of drones is expected to increase substantially. Apps for mapping obstacles, autonomous flight, filming and photography, search and rescue programming and even social networks for drone lovers have been popping up all over the place in recent years, and this market is predicted to grow substantially. Whilst drones themselves will change and upgrade, one of the biggest changes will probably be in the functionality and purpose of these drones, and proportions and numbers of user groups are expected to alter dramatically, with huge increases in personal and commercial usage.

Next up is regulation. Several near misses between civilian drones and commercial aircraft has initiated the development of government sanctions to try and prevent accidents. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has issued a drone code, a set of regulations to outlining safe practise for piloting drones. However, in recent surveys they carried out, a large number of users couldn’t recall what any of the regulations were. And personal drone usage isn’t the only concern. As commercial usage increases and large corporations increasingly back drone technology, more new regulation is going to need to be adopted to determine who should get access to our skies, and where and when this access is allowed. Privacy and environmental concerns are also factors for future consideration. Many drones are fitted with cameras and sensors – how does this affect security? Noise pollution will increase as drone users fly in more empty countryside areas, with the potential for disturbance of wildlife as UAV numbers continue to rise. The future policies adopted worldwide will determine the direction and growth of drone business worldwide, and will shape the future of drone technology forever.

Finally, where will actual drone technology head? Recently, US government has announced the launch of new swarm programs. Where missiles and defensive technology can easily target a single large aircraft, swarms of small UAVs are much harder to take down. Swarms can cover more ground on surveillance assignments, and relay a higher level of detail. And these swarms won’t just be for military use. Already drones are starting to be implemented for large visual displays, with fitted colour changing lights and timed flight paths giving visuals as impressive as fireworks! Check out some of the displays Intel have been producing recently – is this the future of advertising?

Youtube | Warner Bros

Wherever the future of drones may lead, one thing is for certain – this technology is changing our world enormously.

Want to know more?

For more detail, check out specialist websites and blogs such as Drone Life or The Drone News.


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