A drone, more technically known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard.
The flight of UAVs may be controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. The ICAO classifies unmanned aircraft into two types under Circular 328 AN/190:
- Autonomous aircraft – currently considered unsuitable for regulation due to legal and liability issues
- Remotely piloted aircraft – subject to civil regulation under ICAO and under the relevant national aviation authority.
The typical launch and recovery method function of an automatic system or an external operator on the ground. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have mostly found military and special operation applications, but also are increasingly finding uses in civil applications, such as policing, surveillance and firefighting, and nonmilitary security work, such as inspection of power or pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft.
UAVs typically fall into one of six functional categories:
- Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
- Reconnaissance – providing battlefield intelligence
- Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions
- Logistics – UAVs specifically designed for cargo and logistics operation
- Research and development – used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field-deployed UAV aircraft
- Civil and commercial UAVs – specifically designed for civil and commercial applications
They can also be categorised in terms of range/altitude and the following has been advanced as relevant at such industry events as ParcAberporth Unmanned Systems forum:
- Hand-held 2,000 ft (600 m) altitude, about 2 km range
- Close 5,000 ft (1,500 m) altitude, up to 10 km range
- NATO type 10,000 ft (3,000 m) altitude, up to 50 km range
- Tactical 18,000 ft (5,500 m) altitude, about 160 km range
- MALE (medium altitude, long endurance) up to 30,000 ft (9,000 m) and range over 200 km
- HALE (high altitude, long endurance) over 30,000 ft (9,100 m) and indefinite range
- HYPERSONIC high-speed, supersonic (Mach 1–5) or hypersonic (Mach 5+) 50,000 ft (15,200 m) or suborbital altitude, range over 200 km
- ORBITAL low earth orbit (Mach 25+)
- CIS Lunar Earth-Moon transfer
- CACGS Computer Assisted Carrier Guidance System for UAVs
In 1849 Austria sent unmanned, bomb-filled balloons to attack Venice. Drone innovations started in the early 1900s and originally focussed on providing practice targets for training military personnel. UAV development continued during World War I, when the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company invented a pilotless aerial torpedo that would drop and explode at a preset time. The earliest attempt at a powered unmanned aerial vehicle was A. M. Low’s “Aerial Target” of 1916. Nikola Tesla described a fleet of unmanned aerial combat vehicles in 1915. A number of remote-controlled-airplane advances followed during and after World War I, including the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. The first scale remote piloted vehicle was developed by the film star and model-airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935. More emerged in the technology rush during World War II – used both to train antiaircraft gunners and to fly attack missions. Nazi Germany produced and used various UAV aircraft during the course of WWII. Jet engines entered service after World War II in such types as the Australian GAF Jindivik, and Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951, while companies like Beechcraft also got in the game with their Model 1001 for the U.S. Navy in 1955. Nevertheless, they were little more than remote-controlled airplanes until the Vietnam War.
Beyond the military applications of UAVs with which “drones” became most associated, numerous civil aviation uses have been developed, including
- aerial surveying of crops
- acrobatic aerial footage in filmmaking
- search and rescue operations
- inspecting power lines and pipelines
- counting wildlife
- delivering medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions
- reconnaissance operations
- cooperative environment monitoring
- border patrol missions
- convoy protection
- forest fire detection
- coordinating humanitarian aid
- plume tracking
- search & rescue missions
- detection of illegal hunting
- land surveying
- fire and large-accident investigation
- landslide measurement
- illegal landfill detection
- crowd monitoring
The list goes on and on…
UAVs have been used by military forces, civilian government agencies, businesses, and private individuals. In the United States, for example, government agencies use UAVs such as the RQ-9 Reaper to patrol the nation’s borders, scout property, and locate fugitives. One of the first authorized for domestic use was the ShadowHawk UAV in service in Montgomery County, Texas, and is being used by their SWAT and emergency management offices.