Drones. These unmanned flying robots–some as large as jumbo jets, others as small as birds–do things straight out of science fiction. Much of what it takes to get these robotic airplanes to fly, sense, and kill has remained secret. But now, with rare access to drone engineers and those who fly them for the U.S. military, NOVA reveals the amazing technologies that make drones so powerful as we see how a remotely-piloted drone strike looks and feels from inside the command center. From cameras that can capture every detail of an entire city at a glance to swarming robots that can make decisions on their own to giant air frames that can stay aloft for days on end, drones are changing our relationship to war, surveillance, and each other. And it’s just the beginning. Discover the cutting edge technologies that are propelling us toward a new chapter in aviation history as NOVA gets ready for “Rise of the Drones.”
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. The typical launch and recovery method of an unmanned aircraft is by the function of an automatic system or an external operator on the ground. There are a wide variety of UAV shapes, sizes, configurations, and characteristics. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.
They are usually deployed for military and special operation applications, but also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as policing and firefighting, and nonmilitary security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft.
If technology companies have their way, the buzz of a drone will soon be as ubiquitous as the glint of a smartphone screen. Facebook aims to deliver internet access from drones high in the stratosphere, Google wants to drop piping hot food at your door via quadcopter, and Amazon has just patented a shoulder-mounted drone to help police officers.
Today’s commercial drones carry lightweight radios and cameras, and pack powerful lithium ion batteries whose flight times last minutes rather than seconds.
But that is nothing compared to what could be coming soon. The change that Silicon Valley is working towards, and that many people fear, is drones harnessing the growing power of automation and artificial intelligence. When drones no longer need humans to control them, their usefulness will improve exponentially.
How drones are sparking a transport revolution – in pictures
Deliveries of small packages, medicines and takeaway food, all of which have already happened, are only the tip of the iceberg. Why put up scaffolding to paint your house when an intelligent drone could do it in a flash? Drones could swarm into agriculture, industry and sports. They could hunt for missing hikers, respond to burglar alarms, and act as mobile speed cameras. Uber thinks that autonomous drones will one day even transport people around cities.
What’s holding drones back?
Such is the hype. But for every tech company with its head in the clouds, there are problems to bring them back down to earth. “There are big technical challenges,” says Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “There’s a bunch of PhD theses that need to be completed before you can build a drone to autonomously police an area, find intruders, and use facial recognition to know who is meant to be there. Plus, having these things stay aloft beyond a few minutes is non-trivial.”
The problems get larger still when you think of a drone having to avoid obstacles: weather, birds, manned aircraft and all the other drones zipping around. Nasa is developing an automatic low altitude air traffic control system called UTM but is not due to complete its research until 2019. Any real-world deployment of such a network is still many years off.
In the meantime, there is growing tension between drone enthusiasts who want flying robots filling our skies, and some regulators, pilots, politicians and the public who are less than excited at the prospect. New rules this summer from America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), called Part 107, made it easier for commercial drone users to get airborne but stopped short of giving comprehensive guidance.
“Privacy is the biggest unanswered question,” says Arthur Holland Michel, director of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, in New York. “The FAA has no hard rules relating to privacy or data collection and use, nor does it have any rules regarding overflights of private property.” While the federal government dithers, some American states and cities have passed their own laws, creating a patchwork of legislation that could frustrate future commercial services.
Drones Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (full documentary HD