What is a drone?

On October 15, 2014 I presented to the Long Island Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute in Suffolk County, New York, introducing Estate Aerial Inc.  The topic was entitled, “Use of UAV’s in the A/E/C Industry”.

The A/E/C industry has relied heavily on aerial imagery for a very long time.  Now, with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the progress of a construction project can be documented for a fraction of the cost compared to traditional aerial media.  Aerial video documentation by UAV, or “drone”, of each phase of a project offers detail and history of a job site not possible with static aerial photographs.  This allows for easy collaboration between owners, architects, engineers and construction managers - ensuring progression and design quality.  Owners and A/E firms - together with construction companies - benefit by having a “living” timeline of their work.  This helps with planning future renovations and conveying competence to prospective clients.  UAV or “drone” applications include pre-construction site images, construction documentation, building inspection, insurance claims, real estate sales,  and more.

The meeting was held in Melville, Long Island and the attendees seemed very interested.   I brought along one of our bigger UAV’s for them to inspect.  Most of them had never seen a professionally built UAV before, so they were intrigued.  But the question of the evening was, “What exactly is a drone?”  In my opinion, most of the UAV’s being flown today are not drones.

When we think about drone technology, images of the Predator that is being used by our military comes to mind.  This oddly shaped, unmanned, remotely controlled airplane has some very unique capabilities.  It’s can fly for many hours at a time; it can carry hundreds of pounds of lethal armaments along with very sophisticated telemetry (spy) equipment.  What most people fail to realize is that this flying machine is being remotely operated and closely monitored by a military pilot.  In some cases, the pilot is directly controlling the aircraft’s every move using joysticks and switches.  But what makes this machine a drone?  Simply put: intelligence.

By definition, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also referred to as an unpiloted aerial vehicle and a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard.  If that’s the case, then there have been drones in the hands of civilians for over 75 years - just about as long as the public has been flying hobby-grade radio controlled airplanes and helicopters.  Carrying this logic forward; all radio control pilots are also drone pilots.  And if the FAA has their way, these individuals will be banned from engaging in flying these kinds of machines altogether or at least having the operation of these machines regulated in some way.  Something the Academy of Model Aeronautics is currently fighting.

Military drones have the capability of being programmed to carry out very sophisticated autonomous flight plans.  From take-off to landing, they are capable of self-directed flight and can initiate complex commands to carry out specific tasks - such as traffic avoidance; taking aerial images of an enemies stronghold; or launching missiles to destroy enemy targets.  But for this to happen, the UAV has to be programmed by the pilot in command (PIC) - who is stationed in a military control room.  So the machine is just doing what it is told to do. 

Now let’s think about consumer-grade “drones”.  Most, if not all, are flown under direct control of the pilot via a transmitter - just like a normal radio control airplane or helicopter.  Furthermore, the level of automation regarding their flight doesn’t come close to what a military drone can do.  However, some of the more current consumer models have capabilities that provide some level of automation to assist in safety and operation.  But I hardly put those features on par with a military-grade drone.

I think that as the times change, so must definitions - and the word “drone” is no exception.  I believe that when I am flying my radio controlled multirotor helicopter with a camera attached to capture spectacular aerial imagery, I am not flying a drone.  I am flying the machine within my visual line of sight; I am also in direct control of the machine and do not use any automation to conduct the flight.  Moreover, we seem to have restricted the use of this word “drone” to just flying machines.  In the popular movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lt Commander Data - after being  captured and assimilated by the Borg - referred to Captain Picard by saying, “He will make an excellent drone.”  Captain Picard can’t fly but is being referred to as a drone.  Certain male honey bees are referred to as “drones”.  Modern automobiles have cruise control that is smart enough to not only maintain speed but can maintain distance from the car ahead.  Cars are even steering themselves as Mercedes-Benz has now introduced Steering Assist on it’s new C-Class model sedan.  Tesla has now come out with an Autopilot feature that can not only read speed-limit signs and maintain the posted limited on it’s own, but can change lanes on the highway when the coast is clear.  Are these cars drones as well?

The salient issue is automation.  I believe that the level of automation should dictate whether or not a flying machine is considered a drone.  When I turn on my transmitter, plug in the battery of my UAV and raise the throttle stick and fly the machine in to a stationary hover - that UAV is not a drone.  But if I turn on my transmitter, plug in the battery of my UAV, and then whip out my computer and tell the UAV to take off and fly a pre-programmed flight path and return back to the point of lift-off, all by itself without any direct input from me, then that UAV is now a drone.

My point is that we have to take a closer look at the automation capabilities of a UAV before we start calling it a drone.  The former example clearly indicates that the UAV is flying autonomously in order to complete it’s mission.  In my opinion, that’s what makes it a drone.  But the wedding videographer looking to get a rising, panning shot of the bride kissing her groom, adjacent to the ocean by a rocky cliff is not flying a drone.  Definitions needs to be established along with responsible rules and regulations that will allow us to take full advantage of this new and exciting technology without jeopardizing public safety.  But we first need to determine exactly what a drone is in a modern context.