So when is a drone a drone? And an RC helicopter an RC helicopter? We have been hearing a lot about drones lately and I keep wondering if people are mixing up drones with RC flying helicopters and planes. So I searched on the Internet to see if there was any established definition of what a drone was. You see, I had always thought of a drone as being a large military or commercial industry oriented flying device that did not house a pilot and was controlled on the ground by a sophisticated computer and could fly outside of the operator’s line of sight like a large airplane or helicopter. But the article I found on arstechnica.com referred to a small flying device that did have a limited distance as being a drone. Check out this fun article and watch the video they put together, it is actually quite interesting if you love technology and cool toys of tech. http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/06/flying-and-crashing-a-1300-quadcopter-drone/
So is a drone a design style or something defined by technological abilities? So I checked Wikipedia to get an idea of what the basic parameters are and here is what I discovered. There were three categories for this type of usage of the word. The first one that I thought was the definition was basically described as thus…
“An unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone or drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is usually armed. Aircraft of this type have no onboard human pilot. Drones are usually under real-time human control, with “the human’s role in UCAV system [varying] according to levels of autonomy of UCAV and data communication requirement[s]” The modern military drone as known today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist and former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory). In 1971, Foster was a model airplane hobbyist and had the idea this hobby could be applied to building weapons. He drew up plans and by 1973 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) built two prototypes called “Praeire” and “Calere”, they were powered by a modified lawn-mower engine and could stay aloft for two hours while carrying 28-pounds of load.” Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_drone
These military drones are quite big as you can see from some of the pictures. They look like vehicles that could carry human beings. They also look rather spendy as well, not that some of the RC devices are not expensive but I am thinking these military drones are will into the millions price range.
So the second category listed on wikipedia was basically defined a drone as a type of robot, which is not the topic that I am trying to expound upon, so that left me with the final third definition that seemed to be broader and also in some sort contention as a request for clarity is posted on the page.
“An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone and referred to as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. The typical launch and recovery method of an unmanned aircraft is by the function of an automatic system or an external operator on the ground. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.” Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmanned_aerial_vehicle
I have to say that this definition of a drone could also include missiles, which I don’t think should be included in this category. For me, a true drone or remotely controlled vehicle like an RC Plane has to have a re-useable or multipurpose quality to it. A missile is sent to just one destination while these other vehicles seem to possess a much greater flexibility of purpose and usage. Perhaps this is something for the engineers to argue about, but currently these vehicles both big and small are in the news a lot.
Articles concerning drones in the news are ranging from people feeling that their privacy is under attack such as the woman in Seattle seeing a drone outside of her high rise building, Amazon toying with the idea of delivering products by drone, a drone seen in regulated airspace near Vancouver B.C. airport, drones being used in Africa for U.N. peacekeeping missions, to the Connecticut beach incident where a woman assaulted a 17 year old male for taking pictures at the beach with his small drone quadcopter. Heck, if that were a crime I would be in trouble too. I just took photos at my favorite beach spot at Lake Tahoe where lots of people were hanging around having a nice day.
So drones are in the news. What exactly is a drone? I am still not sure of what clearly defines them, but this is a technology that can be used for good as well as bad. Personally, I will continue to play with my modest RC helicopter until I learn how to fly it better before moving onto anything I would remotely consider to be a drone.
G. Winkler © 2014
Cumulus Technology – the We Are Technology people