The Past Present and Future of Drones: An Overview

By WPG AmericasJune 21, 2017

2016 was a banner year for the drone industry, with momentous advancements in drone software, hardware, and regulations opening up new dimensions that are bolstering the commercial adoption of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones. 

Industry analysts at PwC forecast the UAV economy to hit $127 billion in the next three years while in another report, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates drone sales to triple by the end of 2020. The increased adoption is primarily driven by ground-breaking innovations that are integrating smart functionalities into drones beyond entertainment. 

History of Drones

The earliest anecdote of an unmanned flying object dates back to 1860s, where the Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War strategically used balloons laden with explosives to destroy enemy territories. Since then, deployments of drones in military operations have proved to be a successful module for surveillance and to launch attacks on enemy bases. The predominant reason for the success of drones can be attributed to longer flying durations, as compared to a manned aircraft. 

The drones of today, unlike its predecessors, are an improved lot that puts innovative solutions on the table. One of the transformative improvements introduced to drones in the present era is the smart software, which leverages incredible features like 'safe return home' and Blind Flight. Safe Return allows the unmanned aerial vehicle to keep a track of its movements from take-off until the end of the journey. The feature also enables the drone to automatically return to its starting point in case something adverse like a signal loss or system failure happens. Blind Flight helps drones to detect obstructions and securely avoid them. It particularly aids the drone to keep away from obstacles while flying.

Drones Today

The growing ecosystem of UAV is evident, as leading software and hardware vendors are showing great enthusiasm to associate themselves with the drone industry. Many of these vendors are upcoming technology start-ups who along with the existing players in industrial and defence-focused sectors are bringing in fresh investments for R&D of the new-age technology.

Drones, apart from defence operations, are being extensively used in diverse fields such as agriculture, energy, land management, construction, and surveillance. Here are some of the present applications of UAV.

Weather Detection – Potentially, drones can monitor atmospheric changes in remote locations where the availability of weather data is limited. The data can then be integrated into prediction models to improve reliability and resolution.

Agriculture – Robotic drones and sensors are compiling a massive amount of Big Data, which farmers are implementing to manage risk and enhance their agility. Already one-third of the agricultural land in Japan is being tended by robotic helicopters. 

Search and Rescue Ops – Drones, in recent times, are proving to be a cost-effective solution for search and rescue operations. It is also an invaluable tool that can be deployed for surveillance activities. Lately, the Tokyo police introduced its first “drone squad” to patrol government establishments and sensitive locations.

The future of Drones 

2017 kicked off with a string of drone industry announcements at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The latest developments can be categorized into three major segments:

  • Industrial drones
  • Drones for consumer use
  • Sports drones

Some of the new drones displayed at CES featured reduced size while others got smarter with virtual reality capabilities and autonomous navigation systems.  

Drones That Can See and Think

According to Anil Nanduri, Vice President of the New Technologies Group and General Manager of the UAV segment at Intel, vision and collision avoidance technologies are becoming a standard norm in the new drones. “This year we’ll see more redundancy built into systems to provide backup support in case vision fails,” he said. “These sensing technologies will help drones fly in fog and all-weather environments.”

Artificial intelligence and Computer vision are Making Drone Flying Easier and Safer 

“There will be more automation — from launching the drone, flying it and capturing the data, to being able to transmit that data and automatically analyse it,” Nanduri stated. “Because drones are getting smarter at knowing what to do, the amount of skill required by a drone pilot will drop.” Security, however, will be a crucial feature to consider just like it is for any other internet-connected device, he added.

Innovation in Fixed Wing and Multi-Rotor Hybrid Drones Will Boost Drone Applications  

Autel Robotics, a global manufacturer of multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones, has recently launched two new cameras for their X-Star Premium quad-copters. The FLIR Duo thermal imaging cameras will facilitate significant advantages to firefighters and building contractors. The company is also introducing a 4K camera with a 1-inch CMOS sensor, which will augment the resolution and clarity considerably. 

From here on, drones will continue to evolve; and it’s only going to get better with new innovations adding smart functionalities that will make drones useful in ways we have perhaps never envisioned before.