It’s a small plastic toy that we would once call a model airplane, but add the military
veneer of “drone” and the toy becomes a lot more evolved than just a model I airplane. So when toys become sophisticated enough to be called drones, the name drone creates something that is currently conceived as a liability.
I have been flying for more years than I can remember, a skill that was rekindled
when I brought my first Microdrone from Germany. Its simplicity of design and ease of
control encouraged me to start a new division within the company BCB Robotics. For
the past nine years I have been immersed in every aspect of aerial robotics, while
watching my personal collection of purchased and handmade drones grow
dramatically. Like so many others, I have fallen in love with drones. Build a Drone
means just that; I built, calibrated, tuned, and flew the drone build in this book in less
than three hours.
For many people, the term drone seems to conjure images of military use and war
weaponry. As a result, the mere thought of these futuristic flying devices tends to
pose security and privacy concerns. While nothing could be further from the truth,
years ago you could hardly hear the word drone outside of military circles; now it is
spoken worldwide. Not because of the military but because of the explosion in the
sale of model drones.
Drone sales are not just hot, they are on fire. Forget the military use of drones for
a moment; civilian drone sales are set to top $40 billion worldwide, creating more than
50,000 jobs in the US alone. The proliferation of unmanned aircraft is already
outpacing the regulations that govern them; both the US FAA and the UK’s CAA are
falling behind the rapid development in drone technology that is driven by hundreds of
thousands of young innovators worldwide.
This is despite the fact that the media seem to jump on the bandwagon every time
some idiot with a private drone flies close to an airfield and puts people’s lives in
danger, and despite the cries of attacks on individual privacy. Yet their advantages
are numerous. A drone is an eye in the sky that can detect and help stop crime.
Drones were used during the recent earthquake in Nepal for damage assessment.
They can fly over areas where humans dare not venture, such as minefields. They
have rescued children from flooding and have been used for search and rescue
operations in several countries. When used with the right intentions, drones are
If drones could let you know what they are good at (and that day is not far away)
they would say they are designed for dull, dirty, and dangerous work. Dull may
encompass looking at crop growth and making the farming industry more efficient so
we can feed the planet. Dirty could mean going into places inaccessible to humans,
and dangerous work might be assessing the radiation from a leaking nuclear plant.
Drones can and will be extremely useful to society as a whole. For the moment, we
only hear of military drones bombing some far-off target, or how some kid flew his
drone over an airport, or about the idiot who used a shotgun to shoot down a drone.
This is today’s news; tomorrow it will be different when drones start saving lives.
One thing is for sure: drones are here to stay.
So you are thinking about owning a drone? Well, you have a choice: buy one ready
made, or purchase one in kit form—or you can follow the instructions in this book and
make your own. Whichever path you choose, remember that with a drone comes
responsibility; it may only be a “toy,” but it’s a toy that flies in the air. No matter what
size or type of drone you possess, you have to take into consideration some basic
truths. Drones can become an obsession and take over much of your free time. And
owning or building a drone does not grant you an automatic pilot’s license—it is
equally as important to learn to fly safely.
The main aim of this book is to give you a step-by-step guide on how to build a
drone without all the technical jargon (although you will learn some technical terms as
you progress). Additionally, the book will show you how the basic drone can be
upgraded so that you can fly autonomously, using way-points, or set the drone to
Follow Me mode. You will also be able to improve the look of your drone, making it
Build a Drone contains a vast amount of information about all forms of drones,
from those used by the military and commercial markets to the models available for
hobbyists. It also explains their use within society and how they will enhance mankind.
Most of all, it highlights the vital aspects of safety required when flying a drone,
mainly the FAA and CAA regulations that discipline its use.
If you can read, then you can build a drone. You don’t need a degree in
aeronautical engineering. True, there is some programming involved, and fine
adjustments will make your drone fly better, but they are easy to understand.
How much will it cost? To be perfectly honest, it is cheaper to buy a drone than to
build one. Most new drones come out of the box almost ready to fly after some basic
assembly and charging the battery. However, if you want to understand the drone,
you are better off building your own—added to which is great fun. The basic drone
shown in this book will cost you around $300, but if you want to remodel, adding
more sophistication such as telemetry and LIDAR, you can count on doubling that.
Build a Drone contains insight into all the types of drones available and what they
are used for. It is also a guide to the advantages of buying versus building. For those
that choose the latter, the book explains the mechanical parts required to keep a
drone stable in the air and how they control its actions and functions in flight.
Build a Drone is more than a simple step-by-step guide. It explains how to put the
parts together, calibrate, and adjust settings to get your bird into the air safely. The
book covers every aspect of obtaining your own drone, from simple construction to
the workings of a Ground Control System, and using software to control it. It also
shows how to take your basic drone and turn it into a thing of beauty by designing
your own airframe.
To build a drone, you only need to know how to read; the rest will come naturally. If
you learn what a component does and grasp its function within the drone’s structure,
slowly but surely you will understand what makes a drone fly stable in the air. You
need only to gather your component parts and assemble them, adding the firmware
and software to make it fly and carry out your commands. None of this requires
programming skills or advanced knowledge of electronics.
Why would you want a personal drone? Well, there are many possible reasons for
having your own drone. Most of us love things that fly, and up until a few years ago
this would mean going to an aero-model club and learning to fly a fixed-wing aircraft
or a helicopter. Now we have drones and things are much simpler, especially when it
comes to flying. Additionally, you may want to use your drone for a more commercial
application like aerial mapping or photography and become a professional flyer
earning your living from flying drones. No matter the reason for wanting a drone, Build
a Drone will help you decide what is best for you personally.
To build or buy your own drone means investing in some serious equipment and
personal time, both of which can be expensive. When you finally have your drone,
learning to fly it is the key element to minimizing costly crashes and damage. Although
quad-copters can literally fly themselves when in automatic mode, if they’re not
calibrated correctly and you have not installed a range of fail-safe protocols, you
could still lose your drone. Worse still, it could cause damage to people or property.
Learning to fly safely is paramount to protecting your drone investment.
Another worry is where to fly your drone; you may well own one but is it legal to
fly? Even when it is legal, there are considerations such as privacy and trespass.
Aviation law on flying a drone is different around the world and even from state to
state in America, so you are best advised to consult the law in your area. Visit a local
flying club and ask the advice of those who have been safely flying for years.
As you read through Build a Drone, the answers to all of the above questions and
advice will become clear, especially regarding construction. The one thing you might
find a little confusing is all the acronyms throughout the book, such as LIDAR (Light
Detection and Ranging). Don’t worry too much, as most are explained throughout the
book and those that are not can be found in the Glossary. Additionally, I would advise
all those truly interested in any form of aerial robotics to search through the brilliant
ArduPilot website: ardupilot.com/
In a world that is rapidly changing, I personally find that designing and building a
drone is very relaxing and extremely satisfying. So enjoy your drone build and get it
flying safely. It is a new and exciting hobby, one that reaches out to advanced
technology in a way that all of us can understand.
You may have been building model aircraft and flying at your local club for years;
you may be an engineer with an interest in drone technology; or you may have
purchased a drone for a hobby. No matter what role you play, you are a partner in
the drone revolution. The day when drones are common in the skies overhead, you
can say to your grandchildren, “I built one of those.”
WHAT IS A DRONE?
Iwatched the news this morning as they announced the death of Jihadi John,
believed killed in an American drone strike. Real name Mohammed Emwazi, he
become prominent after appearing in a series of gory propaganda videos showing the
beheading of several British, American, and Japanese captives. Jihadi John was
targeted in a vehicle as he left the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Imagine
a flying machine, which could have flown from the United States, able to locate and
kill a man thousands of miles away. Actually, I believe the drone may have been
launched from the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait. The funny thing is, drone strikes
are such a regular occurrence today that it’s no longer considered news. Yet, by
contrast, in the same month, a British filmmaker was fined $1,350 (£1,200) for flying
his model drone over Hyde Park in London.
Less than a week later, 129 people were killed in a massive attack in Paris, France.
The attacks were carried out by suicide gunmen who, after shooting down many of
their victims, detonated their suicide vests killing even more. France was quick to
respond, sending fighters to bomb some of the ISIS strongholds in Syria. Within a
week, the UN Security Council unanimously approved an action that nations should
take all necessary measures in the fight against ISIS. The US increased its drone
Surprisingly, drones have been around for some time, but the word drone seems to
have suddenly been transformed into the Prince of Darkness … well maybe not quite
that bad, but in the happy days of model making, building and flying a model plane
was something done for pleasure. So let’s step back a little in time before all the
media hype about flying objects invading your privacy and how killer drones roam the
skies looking for trouble. In reality, there is more of a risk from bird strikes on manned
aircraft than any serious danger from drones, but bird strikes do not make headline
I have always called my personal drones Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
However, in September 2015, I attended the conference at the main Naval Air Base
in Cornwall, UK. Everyone was there, including the people who designed ScanEagle
in America and the British police, who displayed a DJI Inspire. It was without doubt
the best “across the board” drone conference I have ever attended. I was impressed
with the open debate but silently amused to hear that the official word for any UAV
was now drone. Military or civilian, large or small, in the UK it’s a drone. Likewise, it’s
not autonomous flying, it’s now called automatic, and so I will stick with these terms
for the moment.
Author’s Note: Throughout the book I may refer to “your drone” and “your quadcopters”
in the same sentence. In both cases they are one and the same.
The use of drones can be classified into three different areas: military, civilian, and
hobbyist. Although the use of drones in the military has been around for a long time,
recent innovations in communication have rekindled the possibilities and benefit of
drones upon the battlefield. As the face of war has changed, so has the weaponry
designed to wage it. In the UK, for example the British military has drones at its
disposal, the largest of these being the American-made Reaper. Britain also has the
Watchkeeper, the Desert Hawk, and the small Black Hornet—the latter is just 18
grams (0.63 ounces).
On the civilian side, drones have a very good future, but not in the present form as
most people are led to believe. The media shows parcel delivery by drone, and a hot
meal being placed on a table by the flying restaurant service. Trust me, that is not
going to happen—well, not for a long time yet. And why not? It’s because of the
“what if” factor. For example, our food delivery drone is working perfectly with
thousands of flights a day to happy customers. Then one day some idiot on the table
decides it would be fun to put a fork up into the propellers just to see what would
happen; obviously the drone would lose balance and crash wildly causing serious
damage to anyone in close proximity. Our intention was to deliver food, but we did
not anticipate the “what if” factor—the idiot sitting at the table. So it will be a long
time before drone delivery flights are considered totally safe.
While the general public might refer to all drones in the same voice, the authorities
see them quite differently, and as such classify them. In both the hobbyist and
commercial worlds, size is the determining factor. A drone is classified in (mm) with
the frame size being represented by the greatest point–to-point distance between
two motors on a drone; yet you will often find that most propellers are sized in
inches. However, when it comes to the government, both the UK and the US classify
the type of drone by weight:
7 ounces (200 grams) or less is called Nano
7 ounces (200 grams) to 4½ pounds (2 kilograms) is called Micro
4½ pounds (2 kilograms) to 45 pounds (20 kilograms) is called Mini
45 pounds (20 kilograms) to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) is called Small
After this we move into the larger military drones, normally called Tactical, Male,
and Hale, which is anything 330 pounds (150 kilograms) and above. More recently
there has been a review of drones, and the military now classifies a drone according
to its potential. For example, a 200 gram Nano quad-copter would not be so
harmless if it had the ability to deliver an explosive device or become weaponized;
then it would be classified right up there with the Predator.
So why have drones become so newsworthy? I personally think it’s the sudden and
rapid development of unmanned aviation. The driving force and contributing factors
could be the technical innovations in aviation: the autopilot, the inertial navigation
system, and data links to name a few. In the past, drone development was hindered
by technological insufficiencies through most of the twentieth century; however,
concentrated efforts in various military projects overcame the basic problems of
automatic stabilization, remote control, and autonomous navigation by the sixties.
Microprocessors have become ever more capable in their ability, and are now
smaller and more lightweight. Nano sensors and GPS were used to convert the
mobile phone industry into a worldwide network, producing a handheld
communications device that your could slip into your pocket. What has this got to do
with drones? Well a smartphone and a drone share many similarities, minus the
motors and propellers. Today’s autopilots have a main processor, GPS,
magnetometer, gyroscope, and accelerometer just like the phone in your pocket.
The one thing about drones is that they use the open sky above and, for the most
part, are out of reach and without hindrance; the major drawback is if they fail, they
fall to earth. So, until we can develop drones that are considered totally safe, we
must restrict them to areas where, if they fail, they will do no damage and cause no
injury. Strangely enough, this still leaves us with lots of possibilities:
• Flying a drone over a wilderness searching for a missing person.
• Damage assessment of a devastated area after an earthquake.
• Search and rescue at sea.
• Helping farmers control the growth of crops.
• Checking landfill sites for leaking gasses.
None of those activities poses a problem should the drone crash and fall to earth, yet
these areas account for most of the planet’s surface. Once the media hype has died
down, drones will become more widely acceptable. People may complain about the
noise, but cars make more noise; it’s a matter of acceptance. The old saying “what
the eye does not see the heart does not grieve over” is very apt for drones. If our
drone is flying high enough not to be heard, then almost certainly no one will bother;
it’s only when the drone is low enough for people to hear that they will look up.
Safety and media hype behind us for the moment, let us look at how we arrived at
present-day drones. On August 22, 1849, Austria used balloons to drop explosives on
Venice. While the city was under siege, one bright artillery officer had the idea of
sending balloons with a bomb attached that would explode when over Venice. As the
prevailing winds were from the sea, the balloons were actually launched from a ship
called the Volcano. Many of the balloons did explode over Venice with devastating
effect, not just in collateral damage but by terrifying the people, as the bombs were
filled with shrapnel.
In the American Civil War, both sides used hot-air balloons to monitor each other’s
movements and occasionally to direct troops or adjust artillery fire. In 1898, during
the Spanish-American War, the US used a kite with a camera attached to it, thus
creating the first aerial surveillance. Both British and German planes of the First
World War used cameras to take excellent imagery of enemy positions.
However, the first true drones appeared around 1941, when German scientists
experimented with radio-controlled missiles during World War II, bombarding both
British shipping at sea as well as strategic locations inland. They developed a method
of dropping the missile from an aircraft, after which the pilot guided it to its target.
During 1941, the Naval Aircraft Factory developed an early unmanned combat
aerial vehicle, called the TDN, referred to at the time as an “assault drone.” It was
tested in early 1942, and by March the government had ordered ten units. Expensive
to build, the TDN was quite sophisticated, with a television camera in the nose, and
could be flown by remote control by pilots aboard chase aircrafts. It proved only
partially successful, although the TDN did destroy some Japanese shipping in thePacific. The final mission was flown on October 27, 1944, with a total of some 50
drones having been expended, of which 31 reached their target successfully.
They were, in fact, the drones of their day. In the fifties, America and Russia were
competing to conquer space; the scientists on both sides had to figure out how to fly
a rocket without a human on board, launching satellites, and remotely controlling the
path of rockets and missiles. In this era, three prime technologies had to be
• Flight power source
BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON
I think it is true to say that the birth of modern drones evolved out of the Israeli
desert, when someone had the bright idea of flying a fixed-wing model aircraft with a
camera strapped to it—this might also explain why Israel has such a grip on the UAV
market. Nevertheless, it did not take long for the American intelligence world to
realize that here was a novel way of obtaining information over enemy occupied
territory. That’s when the growth in modern unmanned war planes really began.
During the seventies, and through its checkered military history, Israel Aircraft
Industries (IAI) developed into one of the world’s leading drone manufacturers. During
this time, the Israeli military was becoming progressively more interested in using
UAVs for military purposes. The American-made Chukar target drone was used during
the Israeli counterattack against Egypt in 1973. Its main aim was to get Egypt to
reveal its radar sites.
One of IAI’s more successful drones was the Scout, which first operated combat
missions in Angola by the South African Defense Force. In 1982, the IAI Scout drone
was used to combat the threat by Syrian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) positioned in
the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Using the same techniques and lessons Israel had
developed fighting Egypt, they used these drones to flush out the Syrian SAM site
locations. All 28 SAM sites in the Bekaa were destroyed. The American military was
quick to learn from the Israeli battlefield success of deploying UAVs and, by1984, had
embarked on a massive program. While the American military is highly reluctant to
purchase its hardware from foreign countries, initially it formed cooperative
companies that worked closely with counterparts in Israel. While the US has gone on
to develop its own family of drones, Israel remains at the very forefront of the UAV
Drone technology increased dramatically during the 1996 war in Bosnia, when
Predators flew over six hundred missions. This gave way to improved command and
control of operating unmanned drones in a manned aircraft environment. Today these
large drones navigate the skies on the prowl for enemy locations and can deliver an
instant unseen retaliatory strike if required.
The debate about drones in both America and Europe for military purposes
continues unabated, focused largely on the morality of drone warfare. Are they an
unacceptable moral hazard, or are they a tool to combat terrorism? The number of
innocent civilians killed (collateral damage) is a major factor and one that cannot be
ignored even by the pro-drone vote.
There has been a call on the Obama administration to reduce the dependence on
drones, but for the moment it seems they are the weapon of choice. Despite all the
rhetoric, drones have done their job with great efficiency by successfully killing
terrorist commanders in places hereto not accessible. They have penetrated deep
into the terrorist refuges of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, scourging
organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS. They have done so without putting allied
soldiers in harm’s way while reducing the overall cost of warfare.
However, being on the receiving end of a drone strike is not much fun. A bomb
released from a Reaper drone will damage everything within a 200-meter radius. So,
imagine a football field full of people and when the bomb hits you have a 5 percent
chance of living, albeit with critical injury. There are claims that drones kill thousands
of innocent civilians, which sets a dangerous precedent as much of this criticism is
At lot of work has been done to minimize the collateral damage and reduce civilian
casualties. There have been a lot of improvements in re-configuring the Hellfire antitank
missile to fit onto a Predator and Reaper drones, which is the type of missile we
see taking out a moving vehicle. There has also been a change in the targeting
scenario, making sure the weapons fired are equated to the target they are attacking.
Another problem, not widely published, is the number of drones that crash for one
reason or another. Up until January this year, the US has lost or crashed at least 85
drones, with an average cost of around $1 million each. Some go down due to lost
data-link communications or flying in extremely poor weather, while human error has
also been reported. Yet neither collateral damage nor crashes have put a stop to the
use of drones; if anything their use has expanded.
The MQ-9 Reaper is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.
Reapers can do just about anything: gather intelligence, carry out surveillance, and hit
a designated target really hard, as the MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission,
medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft. It can carry a combination
of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack
Munitions. In addition to its many other highly robust sensors, it can employ laserguided
munitions like the Paveway II. It’s known as the Find, Fix, and Finish drone.
The MQ-9 can be packed into a single container and shipped by C130 Hercules
transport aircrafts anywhere it’s needed. It can take off and land using local line of
sight (LOS) communications and, once airborne, it switches to Predator Primary
Satellite Link (PPSL) during its 1,000 nautical mile flight range. It requires two pilots:
one to fly the drone and one to act as sensor operator.
Reapers are not the kind of drone you would want to crash, as they cost some
$64.2 million each with sensors but excluding munitions. Between the US and the
United Kingdom, there are over a hundred in use; most fly out of Creech AFB in
Nevada or RAF Waddington in Lincoln, UK.
Power plant: Honeywell TPE331–10GD turboprop engine
Wingspan: 66 feet (20.1 meters)
Length: 36 feet (11 meters)
Height: 12.5 feet (3.8 meters)
Maximum takeoff weight: 10,500 pounds (4,760 kilograms)
Payload: 3,750 pounds (1,701 kilograms)
Speed: cruise speed around 230 mph (200 knots)
Range: 1,150 miles (1,000 nautical miles)
Ceiling: Up to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters)
COMMERCIAL CIVILIAN DRONES
The best civilian use of drones for the foreseeable future is where they pose the
least amount of threat to human life. Rescue at sea, search and rescue in remote
areas, and farming land all fall into this category because, if there is a failure and the
drone falls from the sky, there is little or no possibility of it hurting anyone or causing
much damage. They are also extremely useful in areas of great danger to humans,
such as detecting and dealing with nuclear radiation or leaking toxic gasses.
Somewhere in between the larger military drones and the small hobbyist playthings
is a whole new field of drones being developed. While the media reports military
drones striking some terrorist group or some idiot flying his newfound toy near an
airport, there are a lot of smaller drones hard at work doing what they do best: “dull,
dirty, and dangerous” assignments. This is where the real innovation is being
developed—inspired ideas to use drones to make our lives easier and more
productive, or to offer assistance in the event of a disaster. Today, drones are being
successfully deployed in police work, the film industry, farming, fighting wild fires,
searching for victims after an earthquake, and a great deal of other uses. This
“Drones for Good” crusade is growing in strength, aided by people who share a
dream whereby drones save and improve lives.
One of the most common uses for potential drone activity is the desire to reduce
costs for industry and make things more efficient. The general perception is that
drones are either military destroyers or big boy toys. This is not the case; somewhere
in the middle is the drone built using advanced manufacturing techniques, with
commercial off-the-shelf components. The economics of civil-use drones has been
improved dramatically; consequently, this has opened up a new commercial market full
of potential. Some examples:
• Fishing fleets: Monitoring of illegal fishing or fish stock location
• Environmental: Oil spills, pollution monitoring, iceberg surveillance
• Disaster relief: Governmental and charitable organizations
• Land surveying: Geo/Digital mapping
• Infrastructure security: Ports, nuclear power plants, wind farms, oil rigs
• Cross-border immigration control
• Search and rescue including a life craft/jacket deployment
• Agricultural surveying and sampling
• Communication relaying
• Forestry management
Our planet needs food, and as the population grows so does the demand on farmers.
Farming is tough, and drones are making it easier. With their aerial abilities, drone can
now help farmers see if their irrigation systems are working, how their crops are
growing, and even detect whether any of the plants are sick by using infra-red
technology. This enables farmers to make critical decisions about where and when to
fertilize, plant, or water. When you couple a drone with automated farm machinery,
you take the human error out of the equation. The end result: better crop yields at a
Take the film industry. The use of drones allows directors to take footage from
incredible angles, achieving effects that otherwise would be done by wires, cranes,
and more traditional apparatuses to a limited effect. Drones can get high above the
scene, keep pace with a running man, and fly over water or clifftops. They are a key
innovation in the film industry.
For the media, drones can cover a news story without getting in the way of
emergency services. Drones can help firefighters by tracking the fire’s movement as
well as locating firemen that may have become cut off and offer them a safe escape
route. By the same inference, drones can help search for survivors after an
earthquake or tsunami using thermal cameras to detect body heat. Natural disasters
and other types of emergencies call for timely distribution of medication and aid.
Drones are ideal for this and can do it efficiently.
“Last year, some eight hundred teams from nearly sixty countries registered for the
Drones for Good” competition, which was rounded down to five ideas that made it
through to the finals. There was a great deal of innovative thinking on how to use
drones for humanitarian reasons including saving lives at sea. The competition proved
so popular that it is being repeated in 2016, and with a purse of $1 million, there will
be no shortage of competitors.
Not being one to miss out on a prize of $1 million, I entered my own team this year.
We have developed a heavy lift drone capable of operating at sea or on land; it’s
called the Marid. Its main function is lifesaving, damage assessment, and delivery of
emergency equipment or supplies. Six prototypes were originally built and given to
MIT in Boston for its Waterfly project. These drones were flown at the 2015 Drones
for Good by MIT, using its own electronics. The new Marid is three times larger and
capable of carrying and delivering the newly developed Seapod. The Marid has a flight
duration of 40-plus minutes, with super long range, and is capable of automatic
The Seapod is a totally new innovation, capable of saving lives among those in
danger of drowning at sea, such as those escaping the conflict in Syria and seeking a
better life in Europe. Once dropped from the Marid, the Seapod automatically deploys
when it touches the water. The design is advanced, allowing even small children to
crawl onto it. The Seapod can accommodate up to eight people and carries lifesaver
equipment to produce water and sustain life for up to four weeks. It also has an
emergency location beacon.
The Marid can also be used over land, responding to a natural disaster scenario.
The drone can be a source of valuable information by carrying out an immediate
damage assessment, while at the same time searching for survivors. Its secondary
role is to aid those survivors by providing emergency supplies to inaccessible places.
An early damage assessment is one of the most important factors in responding to
an earthquake, typhoon flooding, or a tsunami. It takes 875 man hours to search one
square mile, whereas an autonomous drone can do it in 40 minutes. Using thermal
cameras a drone can detect heat signatures in rubble and get medical aid and survival
equipment to those that need it rapidly. Best of all, a drone can work in any dull, dirty,
or dangerous environment.
The drone itself is a VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) which presents a new
standard in aerodynamics, flight stability, payload capacity, and flight time. It is
designed to operate in high winds and adverse weather (35 kmh wind burst) while
carrying a massive 10-kilo payload, using an ultra-light carbon gyro-stabilized gimbal
with visible and thermal infrared cameras that can be utilized both day and night.
Using the new UX400 purpose-designed Ground Control System, the Marid can be
safely flown after a few hours’ instruction, although a week’s course is recommended.
The UX400 not only allows for rapid autonomous flying, but also outputs the video
downlink to any authorized person worldwide. As it provides a vast amount of
exceptional visual information, it prevents collision accidents by scanning the skies for
other aircraft at a distance of up to 200 miles.
Marid Features and Capabilities
• Capable of deploying the new self-inflating seapod
• Highly stable auto hovering with medical, location, and survival package drop
• Autonomous navigation—way-points and search pattern based missions
• Automatic takeoff and landing
• Bidirectional data link with 7½ mile (12 km) range
• Auto stabilized camera payload (pan, tilt, and roll gimbal)
• Digital encoded video link for worlwide distribution
• Visible, thermal, and NIR cameras
• Automatic target lock system
• Advanced flight and NAV control system
• Autopilot black box
By hobbyist drone, I am referring to all those we now see in the stores or online—the
ones that your significant other or child wants for Christmas. A top FAA official
predicted that as many as one million toy drones could be sold during the 2015
Christmas holiday. It’s not just the US that’s under drone attack: in the UK almost
every major outlet is offering at least ten different varieties. Drones have indeed
caught the imagination of many. They range in price from $100 to $4,000 at the top
end, and although the cheaper end will simply fly—albeit in a rather ungainly fashion—
the top end offers extremely smooth flight control, with functionality and a video
downlink quality even the military would find difficulty to match.
While most drone sales will be of the smaller cheaper “toy” models at the other end of the spectrum, the DJI
Phantom 3 and the 3DR Solo can be purchased for around the $1,000 mark—and I can assure you these are
extremely professional drones.
Trust me when I say that some of the newest drones are incredibly sophisticated—
not just in their functionality but also in the aerial imagery they can produce. Many
now use 4K camera systems with boosted communications out to a range of 3 miles
(5 kilometers). Given the average size of a hobbyist drone, that is way out of human
sight, therefore control is via the camera and the telemetry mapping. I have been in
this industry for many years, and the ingenuity never ceases to amaze me. From
an object and climb up the object as it does so, the ingenuity still blows me away.
Globally, the total drone market is expected to more than quadruple to be worth
over $4 trillion in the next eight years. This market is driven and currently dominated
by military and commercial users, but the hobbyist market is closing rapidly. The
current market in the US is worth $36 billion; in Western Europe, it is worth $9.9
billion; and in China, $9.8 billion. Over a third of the drones in the world are made in
the US. The second-largest known manufacturer is Israel, with approximately 16
percent of the market share. Many of the Chinese and Russian military drone
programs remain secret.
The staff of BCB Robotics at EU headquarters demonstrating a model of the seagoing border protection drone,
similar to that supplied to MIT.
In the US, it is anticipated that the US Department of Defense will nearly double
the number of unmanned aircraft in its fleets by 2021. Meanwhile, the use of drones is
increasingly becoming accepted doctrine within the European armed forces and
civilian authorities alike, in a context of increased sensitivity to risking human life
combined with cost-efficiency requirements. Drones have demonstrated their
benefits, advantages, and strategic potential that could constitute a valuable asset
for the requirements of European missions.
Although remotely piloted drones can perform tasks that manned systems would
not be able to perform and go on missions where the lives of the pilots would be put
at risk, there are some considerations that need to be addressed. These include:
• Lack of airspace regulation that covers all types of drone systems
• Liability for civil operation
• Capacity for payload flexibility (the heavier the drone, the more damage on crashing)
• Lack of secure nonmilitary frequency for civil operation
• Perceived reliability (vehicle attrition rate versus manned aircraft)
• Operator training issues (who needs permission to fly what)
• Recognition/customer perception (Drones for Good)
• Safety (drone safety record must be higher than manned aircraft)
In the years I have been flying, there has been a massive shift in technology. True,
in the seventies I had a radio-controlled plane which I could fly around 200 meters.
However, in the past eight years since drones entered the arena, there has been a
massive leap in technology, especially in the commercial and hobbyist markets.
The Hycopter is an “H” configured quad-copter that is currently being tested using ultra-light fuel cells created by
Horizon Energy Systems. It is hoped that the drone will fly for at least 2.5 hours while carrying a payload of 2 pounds;
if this works it will be a massive leap forward in flight duration.
Using new materials for the airframe, improved communications, and better
propulsion systems, drone technology has improved dramatically. One of the biggest
physical restraints on smaller drones is power supply. Batteries can only hold so much
energy, and because adding more batteries to a drone also increases the weight of
that drone, there are finite limits on how long quad-copters can fly in a single flight.
Most of the smaller commercial drones are powered by lithium polymer batteries, but
it seems this technology has reached its peak and a new energy source is needed.
Hydrogen fuel cells may be the answer. Fuel cells, which create an electrical current
when they convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, are attractive as energy sources
because of their high energy density. Tests using hydrogen fuel cells to power fixedwing
aircraft have been highly successful, resulting in a dramatic leap in flight duration.
Possibly the hardest technological challenge to meet is the need for long-range
communications between the pilot and the drone. Traditional frequencies for this task
have been pushed to the limit, and while good ranges have been established for radio
control and telemetry, the bandwidth required for transmitting video remains an issue.
Although the military has dedicated satellite communications for the control and
transfer of data on its larger drones, the rest of the industry is left to rely on ground
communications. However, there is a shift in thinking taking place. The problem is the
type of communication being used to fly the drone and the length of time required for
instructions and data to be passed between the ground control station and the
drone. Latency and missed messages can cause the drone to fly off course or do
things it should not. Long-range communications are improving rapidly, and no doubt
some bright engineer will develop a solution.
The rise in the usage of drones and the numbers being manufactured clearly
indicate they are here to stay. Although there can be no doubt as to drones’
effectiveness within current society, there are still many issues to be addressed for all
types of drone.
Should we use military grade drones to monitor our borders? Should we try and
weaponize many of the smaller drones for use in war? The answers to these
questions are mainly out of our hands; but the use of drones for peaceful purposes is
certainly within our reach. In the latter case, we are only barred by law concerning
where we can fly and the restrictions placed upon us.
The path of parcel delivery by drone is subject not just to the “what if” factor
previously mentioned, but to weather conditions. For areas of low human population
and where human life is at risk, commercial drones will most certainly come into their
own. As technology and safety advance, so will the functionality and usage of drones.
(End of Part 1)