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Tech Explained: Drones

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How do drones work, and what does their future looks like? Find out more in our latest Tech Explained.

Many people think of drones as flying robots primarily useful for taking photos or videos. But these devices stand ready to innovate in a wide number of industries, including construction, farming and delivery. So, what, exactly, is a drone and how do they work?

The first practical drones were created by the military. In the 1930s, the British developed a reusable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Queen Bee, which they used for military target practice. Consumer drones, however, were developed by remote-control airplane hobbyists, who used their phones as remote controllers. Kits developed to allow people to build their own drones. More recently, a huge variety of ready-to-fly drones have come out of development – from tiny toys to large drones that can carry packages, take off from a moving vehicle or work underwater.

What components are in a drone?

Large or small, all drone designs centre around a frame. These frames are often of a sturdy and lightweight material, such as plastic, carbon fibre, aluminium or titanium. The frame acts as a central hub to house all of the drones’ components. Rotors allow the drone to move. By making variations in the rotational speed of individual rotors, the drone can make very fine manoeuvres. A battery-powered motor provides power to the rotors. Landing gear are either immobile or retractable, although retractable gears do not show up in photos and videos shot while the drone is airborne. A few models have no landing gear at all.

Some drones come equipped with a dedicated camera, although most allow the user to add their own camera. There is also a gimbal to keep the camera steady and neutralise the effect of vibrations on photos or video. The gimbal also allows the camera to rotate in three dimensions.

Drones also include a number of electronic components. An electronic speed controller controls the speed and direction of the motor. A GPS receiver gives information on position, elevation, and compass heading. The GPS also sets a home point for the drone to return to in case radio contact is lost. A gyroscope is used to detect which direction the drone is facing, and an accelerometer measures how fast and in which direction the drone is moving.

A radio signal receiver and transmitter send navigation instructions to the drone from the pilot. Some of the most recent drones also include proximity sensors, to avoid hitting objects. A flight control processor works as an on-board computer to coordinate all of the on-board sensors and ensure the drone is flying where intended. Most drones can also feature additional sensors, such as thermal sensors.

The future of drones

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration predicts that around 4.3 million hobbyist drones will sell in 2020. However, many drones are evolving into designs for business use. At Springwise, we have already covered drones being developed for uses such as security and keeping swimmers safe. Potential future uses include providing internet access and delivering food and medicine to remote areas or repairing downed power lines. Researchers are also working to create drone ‘swarms,’ where dozens of drones are able to work in concert. Much of this growth will depend on what regulations come into force regarding drones. For example, in the US, commercial unmanned drones cannot weigh more than 55 pounds, must stay in the operators’ line of sight, can only fly during the day and operators can only control one drone at a time. Anti-drone products are also developing almost as fast as drones themselves. The debate over how to prevent drones from violating privacy has already led to an arms race, with drone-makers developing products to fly higher and faster, while others try to keep them grounded. What will the future of drones look like?