What Designates a Drone?
Drones are unmanned aircraft, capable of navigating a predetermined flight path either autonomously or with an operator flying remotely. Some drones are very small, the size of a deck of cards. Others are much larger, capable of carrying heavy loads or weapons. Some drones fly like an airplane – taking off and landing on a runway. Others use multiple propellers and operate like a helicopter. You may have heard about the military using drones for clandestine operations, or moving cargo between bases. But drones are being considered by civilians for many useful tasks as well.
The benefits of using drones are numerous, many of which makes them attractive to businesses. Drones are cheap and relatively simple to operate. Since they fly, they don’t have to wait in traffic. They are fast, but operate efficiently with either battery or gas power. Drones can deliver packages or cargo to areas that are difficult or dangerous to reach, such as an island or battle zone. And using advanced automatic navigation and preprogrammed flight paths, they can operate with little to no human interaction.
Amazon has talked about its PrimeAir service for some time. The service has proposed to deliver orders within 30 minutes, up to 5 lbs. and as far as 10 miles away from its shipping source. While the specifics aren’t being officially shared, the idea is being openly discussed. So far, technology isn’t a barrier – government regulations are.
The FAA has proposed regulations for unmanned aircraft that could limit their usefulness. The drones would be forced to fly at a maximum height of only 400ft, and must be within visual site of the operator at all times. In addition, the operator would need to be licensed to operate an unmanned aircraft. These regulations are much more restrictive than those of other countries. The FAA is concerned with safety – and that is an important area. For example, what if a drone malfunctioned and crashed into a house, or a person? Engineers have already considered this possibility, and designed safeguards such as kill switches (both automated and manual) that safely land the aircraft. Collision avoidance intelligence is being explored, so that unmanned aircraft would be able to “see” an obstruction and navigate around or over it. As with any technology, there are concerns around security. What if someone hacked a drone? Could they redirect its path to steal cargo, or damage something? These are real possibilities, and engineers are working to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Because of the regulatory concerns in the US, Amazon has taken its testing to Canada. Google is conducting drone tests in Australia. In Germany, DHL is already using drones to deliver goods. One such flight delivered medicine from the mainland to an island 7 miles off the coast. The flight was completely automated – the only human interaction was to monitor the flight in case of trouble. There was even a promotional bit with Domino’s in the UK delivering pizza with drones – but Dominos US was quick to mention that the US division is not looking at this option.
Drones have other uses besides delivering packages. Some real estate agents are using drones with cameras to record aerial views of properties. Drones can be used by police and fire departments, for search and rescue operations as well as catching bad guys. In a natural disaster, where access to an area may be impossible by normal means, a drone could carry lifesaving supplies as well as collect important information about the situation.
Drones could have a significant impact on the job market as well. Jobs in the drone industry are already growing, with many college grads finding work in the industry right out of school. Maintenance and repair staff, ground crews, and pilots will all be needed to support drone flights. This field of work is gaining a lot of interest in colleges and trade schools, which will help educate people with the specific skills needed to fill these positions.
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Matt Rice is an Owner and Chief Technology Officer of Burgess Computer, a comprehensive IT support, managed service and network design firm located in Bath serving clients in southern, midcoast and central Maine. www.burgesscomputer.com