Drones are an incredibly versatile technology with diverse applications, and as a result they have captured the imagination of the public, business and government in equal measure.

The term drone refers to an unpiloted aircraft or spacecraft – sometimes also referred to as an “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV).   This is another innovation boom which is unfolding before our eyes led not just by big business but countless entrepreneurs and start-ups around the world.

It won’t have passed you by (especially if you enjoy watching American espionage dramas such as Homeland) that this is a technology which began within the military - like so many others from GPS, Jet Engines, to the internet. However, as the drone industry increasingly moves away from and grows beyond its military genesis, it’s fascinating to see how it is being adopted by both businesses and the man in the street. Analysts even project that over 1 million drones will be sold around the world this year alone!

As with any new technology many are acutely aware of the risks and dangers, as well as the rewards. The drone is likely to become an increasingly common part of the technology landscape in everyday life – like smart phones, social media, AI, 3D printers and wearable health trackers - so let’s take a closer look at the phenomenon.

Personal and commercial applications 

The present boom in drone uptake by consumers is attributable to a number of factors. Drones are at a stage of development where they can be controlled from a smart phone and with relative ease. They are designed to be easily assembled, but perhaps most importantly they are now highly affordable.

For consumers the main pull of drones is the use high-quality video and images created from unique vantage points. This makes them extremely good at taking video of sporting activities, and has also meant they are increasingly used in film production and journalism.

Businesses have been investing heavily and developing them for a wide range of applications. For example Amazon and other companies have had much publicised attempts to deliver parcels using drones, but it may come as relief to some Amazon customers that this isn’t set to happen in the near future!

The diverse applications include agricultural management to monitor crops and livestock, in festivals to monitor crowd size for safety and security, as well as mining and disaster relief. In wildlife protection drones mounted with thermal cameras have even been used to monitor and count animal populations. One of the most heart-warming stories is drone technology being applied in Rwanda to deliver medicine to areas of the county which are difficult to access; it’s expected to save thousands of lives. There are many more applications – and even more to be created.

The capabilities that drones provide in both business and the lives of consumers will have a far reaching impact - increasingly so as they approach mainstream adoption. This is another example of a technology which is breaking down barriers, putting power in the hands of individuals and giving access to previously unreachable information on-demand.

Misuse and reactions to a new technology

Clearly drones can be and indeed are being used for a great deal of good and economic benefit. However fears arise from the unknowns of a new technology, and perhaps more specifically the unknown people who own and operate them.

Security threats comes from their potential application as surveillance or spying devices, not to mention delivering explosives and even biological weapons. This technology is cheap, available and extremely portable. Meanwhile, privacy concerns arise from drones fitted with cameras, sensors for number plate and facial recognition, thermal imaging, and the potential ability to access open Wi-Fi networks.

These risks have been highlighted with numerous examples of drugs smuggling into prisons, whilst the biggest fear is collisions with planes and proximity to airports, with near misses now well documented. Alarm bells also rung when a drone was flown over the White House and the more infamous example of one landing just in front of the Germany’s Chancellor Merkel during a campaign event.

Consequentially law enforcement agencies are investing in methods as diverse (and amusing) as eagles, radio frequency disruption and nets to counteract the threat. At the same time regulators around the world have been struggling to work out how exactly to deal with problem - and many observe - without much success.

In the US drones must be now be registered with the government and failure to do so is punishable by up to three years in jail and heavy fines. Meanwhile within the UK it is illegal to fly a drone within 50m of a building, 150m of a built-up area or above 400m, with the US having similar guidelines.

Final reflections

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in fact predates World War II, and has gathered pace throughout numerous conflicts around the world. Now they are on the verge of being a commonplace piece of technology, moving beyond the realm of early adopter technology enthusiasts.  

In fact within PDMS we have our very own drone enthusiast who has captured some spectacular images of our Island. Nick’s advice when it comes to flying is simple: “Never fly a drone indoors” and be careful as they “cause pain when it hits you in the face”!