by Mike McNamee Published 01/02/2017
The DJI Zenmuse camera and stabilised gimbal
The final piece of the drone jigsaw is GPS. In 1983 a Korean passenger aircraft was shot down with a total loss of life after straying into Soviet airspace. President Ronald Reagan was so horrified that he gave an order that the military GPS was to be made available to the public as soon as it was completed. GPS remained under the control of the US military and was hobbled to an artificial accuracy of 100 metres until 2000 when this scrambling was deactivated. The superb direction and guidance control that we are now familiar with in our cars and on our phones was soon adopted for drone control.
Drones were initially used for photo surveillance, indeed the General Atomics Predator (the public face of warfare drones) was not equipped with Hellfire missiles until May 2003. Light, high-quality camera technology was required to reduce the payload and improve resolution.
The arrival of 4K cameras with 4/3Micro lenses has boosted the optical performance over the original GoPro offerings and so both video and single frame grabs can be taken from today's cameras. Drones have not been slow to exploit other emerging camera technologies such as facial recognition, gyro stabilisation and target following – such things are now available in even the most inexpensive drones. The iPhone and iPad are commonly used as both viewing and control devices at the transmitter end of the RC system. Micro electronics and feedback control technology, all developed outside of drones, have been adopted to provide the effortless control that is available in today's drones including high-speed obstacle avoidance using both visual mapping and ultrasonic control (invented by bats!). High output but lightweight LED lights are used on drones for visual control and orientation.
Overall then the drone represents something a high spot in exploiting modern technology. The hysterical panic of the red tops is intended purely to sell newspapers. Little mention is made of life-saving blood and drug deliveries in Rwanda (using fixed-wing electric-powered drones).
The fixed-wing Zipline drone delivering medicines in Rwanda.
Some form of restraint may be needed to prevent idiots endangering aircraft in the vicinity of airports but the laws are already in place for this and encrypted geofencing should be capable of preventing intrusion with all modern drones. Drone sales reached $1.5 billion during 2015 and in the USA alone there are more than 500,000 drones registered – the turn-over of DJI reached $1,000 million in 2015. It's probably too large to stop this particular train by this time!
Where do we stand today?
With such numbers of drones out in the field it is unlikely that they will be banned, although some countries and some specific areas are out of bounds for either safety or security reasons. The hobby/enthusiast sector is driving the technology along; at the recent Dubai DronePrix, British teenager Luke Bannister took the winning prize of $250,000 from a prize pool of $1 million. As with camera technology, much innovation is developed for and progressed in the high-volume/low-end market and then filters up to the high-end, heavy-lifting drones. Budgets for the film industry are way higher than most photographic activities and the £20,000 camera rig or drone is relatively common.
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