At last year’s Paris Air Show, some of the hottest aircraft were the autonomous unmanned helicopters—a few of them small enough to carry in one hand, that allow military buyers to put a camera in the sky anywhere, anytime. Manufactured by major defense contractors, and ranging in design from a single-bladed camcopter to four-bladed multicopters, these drones were being sold as the future of warfare at prices in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In May, at a different trade show, similar aircraft were once again the most buzzed-about items on display. But this wasn’t another exhibition of military hardware; instead, it was the Hobby Expo China in Beijing, where Chinese manufacturers demo their newest and coolest toys.
Companies like Shenzhen-based DJI Innovations are selling drones with the same capability as the military ones, sometimes for less than $1,000. These Chinese firms, in turn, are competing with even cheaper drones created by amateurs around the world, who share their designs for free in communities online. It’s safe to say that drones are the first technology in history where the toy industry and hobbyists are beating the military-industrial complex at its own game.
Companies like Shenzhen-based DJI Innovations are selling drones with the same capability as the military ones, sometimes for less than $1,000.
Look up into America’s skies today and you might just see one of these drones: small, fully autonomous, and dirt-cheap. On any given weekend, someone’s probably flying a real-life drone not far from your own personal airspace. (They’re the ones looking at their laptops instead of their planes.) These personal drones can do everything that military drones can, aside from blow up stuff. Although they technically aren’t supposed to be used commercially in the US (they also must stay below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports), the FAA is planning to officially allow commercial use stating in 2015.
What are all these amateurs doing with their drones? Like the early personal computers, the main use at this point is experimentation—simple, geeky fun. But as personal drones become more sophisticated and reliable, practical applications are emerging. The film industry is already full of remotely piloted copters serving as camera platforms, with a longer reach than booms as well as cheaper and safer operations than manned helicopters. Some farmers now use drones for crop management, creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution. And there are countless scientific uses for drones, from watching algal blooms in the ocean to low-altitude measurement of the solar reflectivity of the Amazon rain forest. Others are using the craft for wildlife management, tracking endangered species and quietly mapping out nesting areas that are in need of protection.
To give a sense of the scale of the personal drone movement, DIY-Drones—an online community that has 26,000 members, who fly drones that they either assemble themselves or buy premade from dozens of companies that serve the amateur market. All told, there are probably around 1,000 new personal drones that take to the sky every month (3D Robotics ships more than 100 GPS and IMU enabled autopilot controllers a week); that figure rivals the drone sales of the world’s top aerospace companies (in units, of course, not dollars). And the personal drone industry is growing much faster.
Feature by feature, amateurs can now match pricey aerospace electronics.
What exactly is a drone? The definition has changed over the years, but today it refers to aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight, which means they can follow a mission from point to point (typically guided by GPS, but soon this will also be possible through vision and other sensors). This differentiates them, on the one hand, from radio-controlled aircraft, which need to be manually piloted, and on the other from uncontrolled vehicles like balloons or ballistic rockets. Usually drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to include the ground-station components—also carry some sort of payload, which at a bare minimum includes cameras or other sensors as well as some method to transmit data wirelessly back to a base.
That definition fits a $140 million Global Hawk Drone, circling over Afghanistan and transmitting video to Air Force intelligence analysts in California. But it also describes the $500 foam plane that hobbyist fly on weekends. Both have sophisticated computer autopilots, high-resolution cameras, wireless data connections for video and telemetry, ground stations with heads-up displays and real-time video, step-by-step mission scripting, and the capability to play back footage of the mission in full. The main difference between the two drones is that the Global Hawk can fly at 60,000 feet for 32 hours and civilian craft can fly at 400 feet for 30 minutes. (What hobbyist lack in high-altitude optics are make up in proximity: like easily reading license plates from the air.)
The key ingredient in a drone is the autopilot, a technology that first came into use as a flying aid in the 1930s. Initially, all autopilots did was keep the aircraft level. A combination of a barometric-pressure meter, a compass, and mechanical gyroscopes (motorized flywheels with analog electrical outputs) allowed a pilot to set a heading and altitude and take a nap, knowing that the aircraft would continue to fly straight ahead until told otherwise. Starting with commercial jetliners, pilots could set waypoints and the autopilot would fly an entire route. By the early 1990s, aerospace technology could automate an entire flight, including takeoff and landing (though FAA rules still require that commercial pilots handle takeoffs manually).
Today, all the sensors required to make a functioning autopilot have become radically smaller and radically cheaper. Gyroscopes, which measure rates of rotation; magnetometers, which function as digital compasses; pressure sensors, which measure atmospheric pressure to calculate altitude; accelerometers, to measure the force of gravity—all the capabilities of these technologies are now embedded in tiny chips that you can buy at RadioShack. Indeed, some of the newest sensors combine three-axis accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers (nine sensors in all), plus a temperature gauge and a processor, into one little package that costs about $17.
Meanwhile, the brain of an autopilot—the “embedded computer,” or single-chip microprocessor, that steers the plane based on input from all the sensors—has undergone an even more impressive transformation, thanks to the rise of the smartphone. Once Apple’s iPhone showed that fluid and fast visual interfaces on touchscreens were what people wanted, the same insatiable demand for computational power that kicked in with the graphical user interface of desktop computers came to phones. But unlike the desktop, these mini supercomputers also needed to use as little power as possible. The result was a shift to the hyperefficient “reduced instruction set computing” architectures—led by British chip designer ARM, which now dominates the single-chip industry—driving the performance gains of our smartphones and tablets. As it turns out, these chips are also perfect for drones: Fast and power-efficient processors mean that they can go beyond simply following a preprogrammed mission and start to think for themselves.
And the smartphone-drone connection goes far beyond the processors. These days, a standard smartphone has a full suite of sophisticated inertial sensors to detect its position, a feature that’s integrated into everything from games to maps and augmented reality. The demand for higher-quality cameras in phones has launched a similar revolution in image-capture chips, which are used in drones. The need for smaller, better GPS in phones has brought the same technology to drones, too, such that GPS performance that cost tens of thousands of dollars in the 1990s can be had for as little as $10 in a thumbnail-sized device. The same goes for wireless radio modules, memory, and batteries.
In short, this new generation of cheap, small drones is essentially a fleet of flying smartphones. More and more, autopilot electronics look just like smartphone electronics, simply running different software. The technical and economic advantages of coattailing on the economies of scale of the trillion-dollar mobile-phone industry are astounding. If you want to understand why the personal-drone revolution is happening now, look no farther than your pocket.
3D Robotics, make open source hardware that the DIY Drones community designs, and they have already shipped more than 10,000 autopilots and countless other drone parts. By their estimates, 3D Robotics’ customers alone are flying more drones than the total number operated by the US military (7,494 today, according to a recent congressional report). And there are dozens of other companies making drone technology for the “hobby” market, including Hoverfly, DJI Innovations, MikroKopter, Droidworx and uThere.
Besides telemetry, image/video and intelligence, drones could one day become a way of capturing family vacations at the press of a button. For example, if you’re into extreme sports, such as kite surfing, you’re always looking for better ways to document your exploits. The best vantage point to do this from is the air, about 30 feet above and behind you. That’s a perfect job for a drone. Just imagine if you could touch a button on your iPhone or Android phone, and it would summon a quadcopter to position itself above you, keeping its camera on you as you perform your stunts then flying back to shore when its batteries got low.
Since drone technology is becoming cheaper and smaller, its easy to speculate that local governments could invest in the technology to put hundreds of small drones in the air to capture everything happening on ground. From traffic to crime prevention and beyond. I agree that drone technology has its place in a time of war or to view inaccessible terrain and to collect scientific data, but I fear in the hands of consumers, privacy will be infringed. Especially with new FAA commercial use laws. I also speculate with readily evolving open source technology and low cost, could spark a new industry for domestic spy companies that individuals, corporations and governments could hire to watch certain areas or people. You may be able to hide from a private investigator but could you from a swarm of flying drones? That maybe taking it a tad to far, but you get my point.