Saturday, 23 February 2019

Al-Husseini: A crash course in dazzling flying machines

“Drones overall will be more impactful than I think people recognize, in positive ways to help society” — Bill Gates

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), generally referred to as the drone, is becoming a common sight in recreational and business settings. The multi-billion-dollar global drone market is predicted to grow significantly in the coming years. Drones are regularly utilized by journalists, photographers, and the military. Logistics companies are actively working to develop drone fleets that can quickly deliver packages to customers. Drones are revolutionizing many industrial systems, and providing data needed to tackle challenges in construction, public health, and environmental engineering. Drones are not without issues however. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rolled-out drone-regulation for reasons relating to safety, privacy, and the environment. These regulations will need to be refined to ensure airspace is controlled, and personal wellbeing is protected.

What differentiates toy helicopters from military-grade surveillance quadcopters? Technically, they are both drones. A drone is defined as a remotely controlled aircraft. The nature of that definition makes it difficult to paint drones with a broad brush. Drones are often categorized by size, number of rotors, and range. The military, for example, utilizes both six-inch Black Hornet surveillance nano-drones and 36-foot Predator offensive drones. The simplest rotor-based drones have a single propeller, whereas others, such as the omnicopter, have eight. Many drones feature a fixed-wing design, meaning they have wings like an airplane, rather than rotors. Drone range can vary between a few feet and a few hundred miles!

While drones may seem like new technology, the first drones were tested more than a century ago in military labs. The precursor to the modern-day missile was the Kettering Bug – an experimental, unmanned aerial torpedo. While essentially a missile, the Kettering Bug resembled a small airplane. In the decades thereafter, drones served as anti-gunnery training targets. Reconnaissance and propaganda pamphlet-dropping drones soon followed. Drones began to integrate into non-military sectors by the end of the 20th century. Technological advancements and lower costs have since driven droves of enthusiasts to purchase drones recreationally.

This rapid increase in drone-usage has forced lawmakers to carefully consider how drones might negatively impact safety, privacy, and the environment. Airspace, much like land or water, is a resource to be controlled and conserved. Drone on plane or helicopter collisions are life-threatening and occur due to neglect on the part of often-inexperienced drone-pilots. Drones are stealthy machines that can easily violate individual privacy laws by taking footage or photos without explicitly granted permission. What more, drones are extremely loud, and often disrupt surrounding wildlife. FAA regulation has mitigated many of these risks, but room for improvement remains.

Seeing recreational drone users in Douglasville and Atlanta parks encouraged me to take the plunge. I recently purchased a recreational drone developed by DJI for a few hundred dollars. I was amazed by how simple and straightforward the drone controls were. Photos and videos taken by the drone were astonishingly beautiful. Most of all, flying the drone was an immense amount of fun. I was floored when the drone rose a couple hundred feet in the air in a matter of seconds. There is something inexplicably neat about these dazzling flying machines. Raffaello D’Andrea, a Swiss drone-developer and 2016 TED speaker, puts it well: “The fact that this technology has such huge commercial and economic potential is just icing on the cake”.

Mahdi Al-Husseini is a biomedical engineer, an aspiring computer scientist, and a medical evacuations helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army.


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