Drones in Our Backyard

Drone launch, source: 3D Robotics
Drone launch, source: 3D Robotics

These versatile machines will soon infiltrate western skies.

By Siddharth Raval.

Drones revolutionized aerial warfare, allowing the military to see and destroy targets from thousands of miles away. These aerial robots can be designed for much more than war, however, and they will soon be part of our daily lives.

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), can be piloted remotely or fly autonomously using a set of sensors and navigation systems. Their purpose is usually to carry payloads, such as cameras, packages, thermal/infrared (IR) sensors, or even weapons as in the case of the most infamous drones. These flying machines come in many shapes and sizes, some as small as insects and some with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, and their popularity is growing in tandem with their diverse range of uses.

Infamous Drones

The first drones were conceived of as remote-controlled military aircraft that would not put the lives of their pilots at risk. Serious attempts at making unmanned aircraft got underway in the 90s, before drones first caught the eyes of the media with aerial strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq following 9/11. Will drones completely replace manned planes in war? The answer is “no” for the moment. Drones aren’t equipped with the autonomy that would enable them to respond to unplanned threats. For now, they rely on human intelligence for certain operations and decisions, and such an interface is better at targeting outgunned ground forces than responding to airborne threats. The U.S. Air Force, however, now trains more UAV pilots than traditional aircraft pilots. This number signals how fast UAV technology has penetrated into military strategy. The U.S. military uses these drones for a range of purposes, including reconnaissance, surveillance, and of course search-and-destroy. Since 2001, Predator and other U.S. drones have taken out thousands of enemy targets.

Developments in software technology, sensors, and navigation systems are creating drones that are becoming far more autonomous, efficient, and cheap. With the funding from military technology firm DARPA, BAE Systems has developed the world’s highest …

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