Drone Technology

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Drone Technology

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021020

Publication Date: 2202

Report Type: PRODUCT


Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are quickly integrating themselves into the
daily lives of millions of people around the globe. "Drone" is used to describe
a very broad selection of technology, including everything from sub-$100 toys
that can fly around the house and feed video to a smartphone, to high-end videography equipment used in blockbuster movies, to multi-million dollar
military platforms currently being deployed around the world. This report will
attempt to address the current state of drone technology, what uses it is being
put to, what risks it can pose to personal and national security, and what the
future might look like for this burning-hot section of the global technology

Report Contents:

Figure 1. Amazon Prime Air Drone

Figure 1. Amazon Prime Air Drone

Source: Amazon

and History

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The early years

Although many think of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as having
only come into existence within the past few decades, their history can be
tracked back as far as World War I to the likes of the Ruston Proctor Aerial
Target and Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. Although these units were
incredibly crude by today’s standards, they were capable of completing a
pre-planned flight path with no human pilot on board. These early drones were
more like flying bombs than anything else and soon gave way to a new class of
unmanned aerial vehicles: anti-aircraft practice targets.

The inherently difficult nature of training anti-aircraft gunners without
risking the life of a human pilot led to the development of unmanned,
radio-controlled vehicles like the Fairey Queen radio-controlled target and the
DH.82B Queen Bee.1 In fact, many believe the name "Queen Bee"
actually led to the related term "drone" coming to be used synonymously with
unmanned aerial vehicles. These aerial targets were much closer to what we would
consider a drone today. Having direct, active radio controls that were manned by
a pilot on the ground allowed the aircraft to behave much like an actual plane,
providing gunners with the experience necessary to draw a bead on an actual
enemy target without risking the lives of any of the parties involved in the
training. This use of drone technology as a way to prevent the loss of friendly
lives would come to define it for much of its history throughout the 20th

Although the use of drones continued through World War II primarily for target
practice, the next evolution in the technology came during
the 1950s when the military began considering unmanned aerial vehicles as a
viable reconnaissance platform. Monitoring an enemy without risking lives quickly became an important advantage when the Cold
War was in its ascendancy. To accomplish this goal, unmanned aircraft like the
Ryan Firebee and Lightning Bug were outfitted with surveillance equipment in
successful test runs.2
However, the inception of ultra-high altitude spy planes like the US military’s
top-secret U2 and SR-71 Blackbird led to something of a lull in the development
of drone technology. The logic was that US pilots could perform reconnaissance
duties on enemy territory from such a great height that they would be immune to
enemy fire. However, that belief proved false when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers
was shot down by the USSR in 1960.3 Not only did this embarrassing
incident reveal the US’ spy technology to its enemy, it also proved that no
human participant in surveillance behind enemy lines was truly safe. With
this seemingly obvious realization now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the US
and its allied forces once again undertook the task of integrating unmanned drones into
military protocols.

Drones again come to the forefront of surveillance technology during the
Vietnam war. Vast tracts of extremely hostile land led the US military to
turn to unmanned vehicles with greater frequency than ever before. Although
these proved extremely useful, they were still limited by the fact that
they were capable only of being used as spy platforms, as well as by their need to be
physically recovered in order for the information they gathered to be analyzed. These lingering disadvantages of drone technology would
remain until the next step forward for unmanned aerial vehicles came about near
the end of the 20th century. 

The Birth of the Modern Drone

The first drone that closely resembled what the military, and, indeed, the
general public, has available to them today was seen in 1982. This unmanned
aircraft was deployed during the Israeli Air Force’s offensive against the
Syrian Air Force. The drones were used as
electronic decoys, a method to jam enemy communications and, for the first
time, as a way to capture a live video feed from behind enemy lines. This leap
forward in the capabilities of drone technology resulted in the destruction of
86 Syrian aircraft in a sweeping victory for Israeli forces with almost no loss
of life on their side.4

About one decade later during Operation Desert Storm, the US deployed its
first drones during an active conflict in the modern era. These units closely
resembled those still in use today and included the debut of the now-familiar
Global Hawk produced by Northrop Grumman. Since this time, the US has used
drones for surveillance and reconnaissance in every theater of every armed

One weakness of these more modern drones was the fact that nearly all
of the available models were of the fixed wing variety. This type of aircraft
proved itself time and again for the task of surveiling large swaths of land
or delivering munitions via weaponized drone platforms such as the Predator
Drone from General Atomics. However, drones at this time were not very good at
remaining stealthy and were even worse at maintaining surveillance on a single,
fixed target for long periods of time. For such a task, the military
needed a rotor-based drone, but this proved to be a major obstacle.
Rotor-based aircraft are notoriously difficult to fly, as any RC helicopter
pilot can attest, and are prone to the slightest pilot error or inclement
weather condition. This weakness of rotor-based UAVs changed only in the past
decade or so when models like the MQ-8 Fire Scout from Northrop Grumman were created.
On-board electronics as well as a highly-sophisticated remote control system
allowed the drone’s systems to compensate, to a great degree, for pilot error or
inexperience, as well as for wind and other weather conditions.6 As is often the case, the military-centric technology
that made this advancement possible soon began to trickle down to the industrial
and, finally, the consumer markets, clearing the way for the ongoing influx of
drone technology.

Figure 2 shows a US Air Force MQ-1B Predator drone.

Figure 2. MQ-1B Predator Drone

Figure 2. MQ-1B Predator Drone

Source: US Air Force

Modern Drone Technology

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Today’s drones are being used by everyone from the world’s militaries to any
variety of businesses to the kid down the street. The purposes to which unmanned
vehicles are being assigned has exploded in variety since the technology has
become ever more efficient and cost-effective. Although the number of specific
uses for modern drones is too long to include here, there are a few categories
under which these purposes tend to fall. There will be considerable cross-over
between some of the use cases, which will be noted where appropriate, but the
list should serve as a comprehensive primer on where someone should expect to
see drones going to work in today’s modern world.

Current Use Cases

  • Military – This is the original and most common use that drones had
    been put to until very recently. Although the vast majority of historical
    uses and a sizable portion of modern uses are still focused entirely on
    non-confrontational recon missions, the US and foreign military powers now
    have fully weaponized drones in their arsenal. These often controversial
    weapons make it possible for a remote pilot to deliver a payload to
    far-flung locales without ever having to leave a hardened bunker location
    many miles away. Specific military applications include:

    • Surveillance and Inspection – Still the most common use
      for drones, allowing the military to access areas that would be
      unreachable or dangerous for a human agent. This usage has both
      military and civil engineering applications with multiple companies
      developing drones for both scenarios. Specific tasks drones of this type
      have been assigned include inspecting major engineering installations
      such as dams, as well as monitoring natural phenomena including active
      volcanoes and weather events. 
    • Reconnaissance – Arguably an offshoot of the aforementioned
      category of military usage, reconnaissance also now includes the
      possibility of monitoring and reporting on an active battlefield. This
      technology, combined with recently developed augmented reality
      capabilities, makes it possible for an "eye-in-the-sky" type
      scenario where targets can be painted for troops on the ground, while
      also preventing tragic friendly fire incidents by identifying friendlies
      from above.
    • Offense – Thanks to developments like the "Predator drone," the
      military has now fully adopted unmanned aerial vehicles as a viable
      delivery system for lethal armaments. Although this fulfills the dreams
      of many soldiers and generals to fight a war without risking any of
      their citizens’ lives, the practice of using drones has become controversial
      in recent years. Some believe the ease with which these drone strikes
      can be carried out will make it too convenient to simply assassinate
      enemy targets at will. Others argue that the lack of a human being
      physically present at the location where the offensive is occurring will
      result in undue collateral damage caused by an incomplete assessment of the
      situation as it is presented through the drone’s instrumentation. Despite these
      concerns, no major military power in the world has shown any signs of
      abandoning the prospect of using drones as offensive weapons. 
  • Industrial – This category includes many crossovers with
    the military use cases seen above (with the obvious exception of offense).
    Like the military interests of the world, industrial entities have been
    quick to see the benefits provided by drone technology, often using it to
    save hundreds of thousands of dollars by removing any danger to human life
    from a traditionally hazardous task.

    • Surveillance and Inspection – An obvious crossover use with
      military interests, many industries are using drones to perform
      surveillance and inspection tasks that a human could not do or would be
      in significant danger performing. A well-known example of this is the
      inspection of wind turbines by drones. These unmanned aircraft allow for
      daily inspections of a structure that is extremely difficult to access
      for human personnel, insuring that repairs can be made where needed,
      while also sparing employees from the dangers and rigors of climbing
      hundreds of feet into the air when it is not necessary.7
    • Industrial Planning – A close cousin of surveillance and
      inspection, the industrial planning use case is nearly exclusive to the
      construction industry. Possible scenarios include environmental impact
      surveys, planning external construction on extremely tall edifices, and
      aerial photography for ground-level construction. This type of use also
      includes possibilities such as scouting locations for mining expeditions
      in hard-to-reach locales and other prospecting tasks. 
    • Line Clearance – Many utility companies and
      municipal services entities have begun using drones to clear power and
      communications lines of debris, fallen branches, and other obstructions.
      This is being accomplished using everything from hooks, to trimming
      devices, to flamethrowers capable of burning off fallen branches or
      other plant matter.
  • Commercial – Similar to Industrial applications,
    commercial uses for drone technology were quick to pop up as soon as the
    unmanned devices reached widespread availability. Although not generally
    occurring on as grand a scale as industrial scenarios, commercial drone use
    has transformed many areas of commercial interest that were previously
    unavailable to all but the largest enterprises and corporations.

    • Aerial Photography – Just a decade or so ago, getting
      an aerial image of a given location would involve contracting a
      helicopter equipped with high-resolution photographic equipment. Now,
      for less than the amount a single session of that type would have cost,
      amateur and professional remote control pilots can take aerial images
      and video of the location they desire by purchasing their own drone.
      This has proven to be a particular boon to the real estate segment,
      giving realtors the ability to attract potential buyers with an aerial
      image or flyby of the property or land they are attempting to sell.
    • Delivery – This is a borderline use case for being considered
      as currently viable as it remains in its testing stages for nearly all
      The possibility of using drones to deliver products has been around as
      an idea for some time. However, it was popularized by a starry-eyed
      announcement from one of the world’s largest online retailers, Amazon,
      that it would begin testing the possibility of using drones to deliver
      orders to its customers within a half hour of the transaction being
      completed. Since Amazon’s announcement, others have taken a crack at
      drone-based delivery, with one of the most advanced efforts being,
      predictably, from UPS. While no company has begun offering any form of
      widespread commercial drone delivery, several have advanced their efforts to the
      point where commercial viability could be possible within just a few
      years. Despite this, the uncertain future of the federal regulations governing drone
      usage in the US (see below) have intermittently put this plan into
      serious jeopardy. 
  • Entertainment – It is not surprising that the entertainment
    industry, one of the world’s largest consumers of photographic and
    videographic equipment, would be hungry for the totally new, extremely
    versatile platform that drones provide. Unlike the previous categories, the
    uses to which the entertainment industry has been putting drone technology
    essentially fall under a single umbrella: Getting the shot that no human or
    land-locked camera would be able to capture. This is true for live
    programming, especially sports, as well as pre-recorded video.

    Some of the best examples of how beneficial drone technology can prove
    come from the action sports world. Covering events like Olympic skiing and
    snowboarding had traditionally been done by using cameras mounted on
    high-speed cable systems. These installations were massive, expensive, and
    often only existed to be used a single time. To replace this inefficient
    system, videographers now have the option of piloting a drone down the
    steep, winding mountain courses sports like these follow. The video can be just as stunning, or more so, than a cable-based system,
    and can often be had for a fraction of the price. 

    In a similar vein, movie and TV producers can use drones to film scenes
    where it would be dangerous for a human camera operator to enter. Stunts with practical
    special effects and pyrotechnics that would have previously risked lives can
    now be captured by drone-based cameras from angles that would have been
    impossible before. Even news programs and nature documentaries have benefited
    greatly from using drones, often managing to capture wonders like Niagara
    Falls from angles that would have cost thousands, if not tens of thousands of
    dollars to produce.8

  • Recreation – This is the newest and possibly fastest growing use
    to which drones are put. It is also the only category here that is exclusive to
    the private user. The massive reduction in the cost of purchasing and
    operating a drone has made owning one a possibility for a large part of the
    population. Although many of these consumer-friendly models do not share the
    range or capabilities of their commercial counterparts, a fair share of them
    can perform highly technical tasks at distances that would have made a
    Hollywood bigshot or civil engineer envious just a few years ago. New uses are
    popping up every day for consumer-level drones. However, the following
    scenarios are currently the most popular:

    • Racing – Like any motorized vehicle, remote controlled or
      otherwise, drones were quickly and heartily adopted that those that
      believe anything that moves can be part of a race. Early on, this was
      restricted to racing around aerial courses within the line of sight of
      the drone’s operator. However, advances in head-mounted displays, live
      action video cameras, and commercially available transmitters have made
      it possible for first-person view (FPV) racing to become popular. This
      involves piloting a high-speed, agile drone by viewing a video feed
      streamed live from the unmanned vehicle directly to a head-mounted
      display. The result is a video game-like experience of sitting in the
      pilot seat of a miniature aircraft as it whizzes through the forest or
      around an indoor track. The relatively low-cost entry point for this
      hobby has resulted in a rapidly growing fan base, with both commercially
      available models and home-built drones flourishing in this
    • Amateur Photography – The ability to mount an HD or even
      4K-capable video
      camera to a drone is now readily available
      to consumers. This makes it possible to grab stunning shots and videos
      of the pilot’s neighborhood, beaches, lakes, wildlife, and more. A simple
      YouTube search will turn up hundreds of videos taken by amateur drone
      pilots that are producing content for less than $1,000 that would have
      required a major production company to create just a few years ago.
    • Drone Combat – A far less deadly but still destructive use
      for drones has only recently turned up but is quickly gaining a rabid
      fan base. It typically involves simple but hardy drones being placed
      within a space that is surrounded by netting for the protection of the
      pilots and spectators, at which point the drones take off and attempt to
      ground each other by any means available to them. This typically
      involves breaking the propellers or some other external portion of
      another competitor’s drone. Cheap, readily available replacement parts
      mean this activity can now take place without the loss of several
      hundred dollars each time a drone crashes.9
    • Toys – Drone technology has actually come far enough along that
      its price point makes it possible to create a surprisingly
      fully featured toy. These units, which can cost as little as $100, or
      even less than $20 in the case of some micro-drones, are typically designed to work in concert with a smartphone or
      tablet providing a live video feed. Although more expensive models
      offer similar functionality with high-resolution images and built-in
      GPS, the toy versions of this type of drone generally rely on
      low-resolution imaging and simple radio controls. Despite their relative
      lack of high-end capabilities, these toy drones have quickly gained
      impressive sales figures, being gobbled up by youngsters that can keep
      them in the air and in one piece far longer than a traditional remote
      controlled helicopter or airplane. 

Security Concerns

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Like all technologies that begin as a tool of the military, drones bring with
them a certain level of apprehension from the general public now that they are
in the hands of private citizens. A large portion of this unease may come from a
simple misunderstanding about the term "drone." In reality, the word has come to
describe every sort of unmanned aerial vehicle, from a $10 quadrocopter bought
at a toy store to a multi-million dollar Predator drone capable of firing Hellfire
missiles from miles away. Despite the versatility of the word, many average
citizens still conflate a consumer UAV with the more deadly, more frightening Predator
end of the spectrum, largely due to that type of drone having years more news
coverage than the relatively benign types private citizens can now buy. However,
this is not to say that drone are completely free from posing any inherent
danger. Like any naturally banal technology, they could be used for criminal
purposes if placed in the hands of a malefactor. Although coverage of most events of this type has generally been a matter of fear
mongering by less than scrupulous media outlets, it does not preclude the
possibility that, at some point, a commercially available drone could be used to
commit a crime or cause a tragic outcome if its capabilities are abused.

There are essentially two dangers that commercially available drones pose: A
risk to privacy and a potential weapons delivery platform.

  • Privacy – This category refers to both the personal
    privacy of the average citizen as well as the privacy of certain national
    and regional security concerns.

    • Personal Privacy – Knowing the historical uses to
      which drones have been put should make it easy to imagine how the
      average person might be concerned that the widespread availability of
      the technology, to both the general public and governmental agencies,
      could pose a risk to their privacy. Being pressed into duty as a
      surveillance platform was one of the earliest goals for drones and it
      remains one of their most common and easily accomplished tasks.
      Early news reports on the rise of drones often played
      up the threat of both law enforcement officials and peeping toms being
      able to fly a drone up to a home’s second story window to peek in with
      little or no legal recourse for the home’s owner. Several years later,
      threats such as these have generally failed to materialize. Aside from
      the occasional outlier story about an overzealous homeowner shooting a
      drone out of the sky, typically when it was performing
      some task that had nothing to do with them, there have been very, very few actual incidences of the public’s privacy being violated by drone-based
      video surveillance. Simply put, nearly all commercially available
      drones, and nearly all of those available to domestic law enforcement
      officials, would make terrible stealth surveillance equipment. The noise
      produced by the average drone would immediately alert a surveillance
      target to its presence, ruining its ability to provide an
      advantage over standing outside of a home or across the street and
      looking in a window. There may come a point, however, when the average citizen
      should be more concerned about such matters. Drones are becoming
      smaller, more efficient, and better at producing high-quality video and
    • Public Sector Privacy – There is a real possibility of a commercially available drone being used to
      spy on a secured government location. Flying a drone over any secured
      government location in the US is just as illegal as flying any other
      aircraft there. However, the relatively small size of commercially
      available drones, when compared to a manned aircraft, makes it much
      more likely that such an incursion could be missed. That
      said, there are already some safeguards in place to prevent such
      occurrences with more being developed. The fact remains that any party determined enough to break
      into or spy on a given location will attempt to do so. While drone
      technology might provide an additional, and admittedly very useful, tool
      in these nefarious endeavors, it is by no means a sea change, nor does
      it pose such an undue and unchecked threat that it should concern the
      general public.
  • Drones as a Weapon – This category addresses the fear
    that commercially available drones can be weaponized to do harm to people
    and structures, particularly in secure locations, with little or no current
    measures for countering such attacks.

    • The Concerns – First, it should be clearly stated
      that there is no such thing as a weaponized, commercially available
      drone. The worst someone can do with an off-the-shelf drone is to crash
      it into someone or something. It might sting a bit (or in the case of
      some of the larger models, a lot), but it is unlikely to cause any
      lasting harm, and even more unlikely to kill. The real concern here is
      that someone will take one of these off-the-shelf drones and modify it
      with some type of explosive or incendiary device, creating a
      frighteningly capable weapons delivery system. Concerns such as these
      began to garner serious attention due to a pair of
      incidents, one involving a drone crashing on the lawn of the White
      House,10 and one involving a scare
      in Paris when a total of five drones were seen hovering over popular
      tourist attractions.11 In both
      cases, no real criminal intent was uncovered. The White House
      incident turned out to be nothing more than a drunken government
      employee on a ill-advised jaunt, while the Paris incident, although
      never explained, was never proven to be anything more dire than a
      thoughtless hobbyist unwittingly scaring the public. However, as with
      the aforementioned concerns, just because it hasn’t happened yet, does
      not mean it can’t happen.
    • The Dangers – Is it possible that a criminal or
      terrorist group could potentially strap an explosive or some other
      harmful device to a drone? Yes, it is entirely possible. However, it is
      important to take a few things into consideration before becoming overly
      concerned about such an eventuality. First, most commercially available
      drones, particularly those of the more common varieties that caused the pair
      of aforementioned scares, have very little extra lift available to
      them. This means that most off-the-shelf drones are unable to carry more
      than an additional few ounces beyond their own weight before being
      unable to take off at all. Even the cameras used by these craft are
      designed to be extremely lightweight and are usually of the same variety
      as the kind used by professional athletes for recording skiing or
      cycling runs. Managing to fit any type of explosive device with the
      potential to do serious damage to anyone is, therefore, very unlikely.
      Of course, many drone hobbyists prefer to modify their craft with more
      powerful motors and batteries, increasing the potential lift. That said,
      doing so would only increase the possible payload weight to a pound or
      two, and would still result in a craft that could never gain any
      significant altitude. With all of these obstacles, it must be asked
      whether it is truly any more effective for a criminal or terrorist to
      use a drone than it would be for them to simply use any one of the bevy
      of existing methods to harm a person or edifice.
    • The Countermeasures – As inefficient and unlikely
      as it currently is for a drone to be used in any significant crime or
      harmful incident, the government and drone makers are still wise to take
      pre-emptive steps to combat such a possibility becoming a reality in the
      future. Stricter regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration
      (FAA) are now in place and will be covered in additional
      detail later in this report. Meanwhile, drone makers like DJI (the very
      company that produced the drone in the White House incident) are already
      introducing on GPS-based restrictions that would prevent their products from
      traversing any no-fly areas. Although both of these countermeasures are
      in their early stages, it is promising that government and commercial
      entities are both ahead of the game when it comes to guaranteeing that
      drone technology remains a force for good and a source of fun rather
      than a tool for those who would use it maliciously.

Current and Future

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Although the operation of a drone within US borders has been regulated by the
FAA for some time, it is only within the past three years that the agency has taken a serious look
at the current state of the drone market and updated its guidelines. These updates
was created as an addition to all existing rules, and do not replace or alter
any of the guidelines that were already in place. Simply put, the FAA has now
created a registry under which all privately owned drones in excess of 0.55
pounds must be registered with their operator’s name, address, and other
personal info. This includes a registration number, which must be visible on the
drone itself at all times, as of February 23, 2019. The thought behind this requirement is that operators
who previously may have used their drones outside the
confines of the law would have simply been able to abandon their craft to
escape law enforcement. Now they will have to face the consequences of
their actions due to police and other agencies being able to located them via
their registration numbers. Due to the relative newness of this registry, fairly
little is known on how effective it will be in tracking and preventing
drone-based crimes from occurring in the long term. However, it is a small, albeit firm, first
step towards the federal government regulating the operation of drones in the
same way it oversees nearly every other type of motorized vehicle.

As previously stated, the requirement to register was put in place as an addition
to existing rules and guidelines, which are covered below. To make it easier for
private and commercial drone pilots, the FAA teamed with some of the most
popular drone makers to launch a campaign called
Know Before You Fly. This joint
venture lays out the guidelines for recreational use, commercial use, and use by
public entities. Although this report will not dive into the details of each of
these use cases, a quick summary is provided for each:

  • Recreational Use – This title applies to all private
    usage of a drone for non-commercial purposes. It fully covers photographic
    and videographic activities as long as the pilot does not profit financially
    in any way from the resulting media. The guidelines laid down by the FAA for
    recreational use are as follows:

    • Maximum altitude of no greater than 400 feet.
    • Aircraft must be kept within line of sight at all times.
    • Keep well clear of manned aircraft.
    • Do not fly within five miles of an airport unless given permission by
      the airport’s operators.
    • Do not fly near people or stadiums.
    • Do not fly any Aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds.
    • Do not be careless or reckless (fines can be levied for endangering
      people or other aircraft).
  • Commercial Use – This refers to any use of a drone or
    other model aircraft for financial gain or business-oriented services.
    Prime examples of this are real estate or wedding photography, professional
    cinematography, or land surveys. Unlike recreational use, this purpose requires the pilot to have certain authorizations from the FAA. These

    • An exemption from the FAA for commercial drone use.
    • An FAA airworthiness certificate to operate pursuant to FAA rules.
    • An FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA).
  • Use by Public Entities – This use case is restricted to
    government entities such as federal and state government agencies, law
    enforcement agencies, and public colleges and universities. These types of
    drone pilots can apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA),
    giving them permission to operate any small, unmanned aerial system, but
    only for "governmental purposes." Public entity users are also held to the
    same aforementioned guidelines as their commercial and recreational


As stated above, the FAA has already instituted the requirement for all
drones in excess of 0.55 pounds to be registered. This move, particularly its
extremely low weight limit, drew ire from many in the industry, with accusations
flying that it was a knee jerk reaction, and accusing the FAA of not fully
considering the restrictions it was attempting to enforce. However, this is
actually a much more light-handed approach than the agency was previously
considering, with it having once proposed a plan under which all drone pilots
would have to "be at least 17 years old, pass an
aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate."
Furthermore, "[t]o maintain certification, the operator would have to pass
the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months."12
Thankfully for drone makers as well as young drone pilots, this particular
guideline was not passed, and seemingly remains beyond the pale of what the FAA
is willing to require at this point. 

However, it should be noted that even the agency’s relatively banal registry
has thrown up some red flags for privacy advocates. Aside from a promise by
the FAA that it would make the registry
searchable by anyone, the agency failed to provide adequate instructions, leading to many citizens
who were attempting to do their duty and
register their drone mistakenly uploading their info to an entirely
unrelated registry for commercial aircraft pilots. This exposed the uploaded
info to public search and potentially breached the privacy of private citizens
who had no expectation of their information being made public.13 While the issue has since been corrected, an early
stumble like this can often derail even well-meaning governmental regulation due
to it harming the earliest adopters. 

The Controversy

While the new registry has been a bit of a headache, as explained above, it
has generally caused nowhere near the public outcry that the FAA’s stance towards commercial drone use has resulted in. Where the agency seems to
have settled on its position on private drone operation, its handling of
commercial usage has been nowhere near as steady. This has proven a particular
headache for the likes of Amazon and Google, two of the companies at the
forefront of the push to make drones a viable platform for delivering small
goods to consumers’ homes. Despite the obvious commercial benefit, the agency
has already Clashed with Amazon on several occasions, largely due to its
concerns over scenarios like dropped payloads, malfunctioning and runaway
aircraft, and other possible dangers.14
However, all is far from lost for the concept of home delivery drones.
Increasingly accurate onboard guidance systems, improved craft designs, and,
very likely, some intense lobbying by the aforementioned Internet giants has
resulted in something of a softening in the outlook for drone delivery programs.
Amazon in particular remains true to its vision, saying, "The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process
to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are
committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where
we have the regulatory support we need."15

Drone Manufacturers

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The number of drone manufacturers has grown by leaps and
bounds in recent years. Once solely the domain of major military contractors
like Northrop Grumman, the drone market has exploded to the point where it would
be impossible to compile a comprehensive list here of all the active drone
manufacturers currently participating in the market. However, the following
will provide a cross section of the most popular, well know, and
potentially influential drone makers across the recreational, commercial, and
military sectors. The drone makers worth watching, in no particular order, are:


It seems sensible to begin with Parrot since they are arguably responsible
for the modern influx of consumer-level drones. This French company is one of the
most well known makers of UAVs among the general public, having burst onto the scene
with its Parrot AR Drone. The quad-rotor craft was among the first to feature
on-board live video feeds to a connected smartphone and was one of the lowest
priced options at the time of its launch. More importantly, the AR Drone featured
on-board stabilization and automated landing protocols that kept the craft from
crashing, unlike so many manually piloted single- and multi-rotor aircraft of the
time. Parrot released an updated version of the AR Drone, dubbed simply AR Drone
2.0, which featured an improved camera, a longer range, and reduced cost. The
company’s more recent product lines include the Bebop drone family, its most advanced
mainstream offering yet, and the Anafi, a "prosumer" model capable of
recording 4K video in cinema-worth quality. In recent months, Parrot has shifted
its focus entirely to the enterprise and commercial customer, adding thermal
imaging and other scientific measurement tools to its Anafi line and ending its
Bebop sales.

  • Primary Customers – Enterprise and commercial users
    seeking low-cost, flexible platforms for imaging and thermal imaging
  • Primary Applications – Commercial and safety
    inspection, including search and rescue, industrial inspections, and
  • Current Flagship Model – The Parrot Anafi drone,
    equipped with indoor/outdoor flight, GPS, live video streaming to a
    smartphone or tablet, a virtually gimbaled on-board 4K camera with 2.8x
    optical zoom that is capable of
    stabilized capture, and optional hardware controls which raise its range to
    3+ kilometers from the user. Parrot has also launched additional variants of
    the Anafi that include extras such as thermal imaging cameras
    and FPV goggles.


Where Parrot arguably originated the idea of consumer-level drones, DJI has
come to dominate the "prosumer" space in the market. The company’s seminal
Phantom line of flyers went through several iterations, with many industry
firsts having been accomplished by its various iterations. Although its place as
a flagship line has been largely replaced by the Mavic series, it remains an
important part of the company’s history. Unlike Parrot, DJI’s drones
are heavier weight, relatively speaking, and are designed almost exclusively for
outdoor use. Although optional bumpers can be installed on some models, it is generally not recommended in residentially-sized space. The versatile Phantom line was one of the first in the
consumer-level market to feature a gimbaled on-board camera option. Although the
camera is not included with all Phantom models, the company offered a gimbal for
several models of "action cams," including the GoPro Hero series, which
can be retrofitted. These lightweight devices, which also include their own Wi-Fi streaming
video capabilities, make it possible to fly a Phantom with the included hardware
controller while viewing a video feed on a connected smartphone or tablet via
the GoPro app. Less DIY-inclined users can now also purchase a ready-to-fly DJI
Phantom with built-in cameras that include video capture up to 4K
resolution with full image stabilization, or one of its Mavic or Mini models,
which all include onboard, gimballed cameras. This level of videography does come at a cost,
however, with most top of the line Phantom and Mavic units coming in at or over the $799 mark. That said, the company’s drones have
been used to produce stunning videos that viewers often find hard to believe
are the work of an amateur. Still, those interested in a more budget-friendly drones are not being left out in the cold by DJI. Recently, the company
has expanded its Mavic line of drones, to include the Mavic Mini, an
ultra-portable drone that can fit in the palm of the user’s hand while still
offering the vast majority of the features found in its larger cousins. The
Mavic mini starts at a relatively more affordable $449 price point.

  • Primary Customers – Mid- to high-budget consumers,
    skewing towards the young-adult and adult demographic; hobbyists interested
    in modifying their craft; amateur and budget-minded professional aerial
    photographers and videographers.
  • Primary Applications – Recreational use; mid- to
    high-range amateur photography and videography; low- to mid-range
    professional photography and videography.
  • Current Flagship Model – The Mavic Air 2, equipped with
    outdoor flight, GPS, and hardware controls. The unit includes an integrated
    camera mounted on a robotic gimbal that can produce image stabilized 4K
    video, which can also be output as a live feed to a connected smartphone
    or tablet device. It also comes equipped with an array of sensors
    capable of eliminating pilot errors that would otherwise cause a crash. It
    also features advanced noise reduction capabilities designed to allow drone
    pilots to record audio without it being drowned out by rotor hum.


Founded in 1972, Aerovironment focuses its efforts on energy systems,
electric vehicles, and, more recently, drone technology. The company specializes
in small, hand-launched aerial drones capable of providing surveillance feeds to
military and law enforcement personnel. Aerovironment’s line of drones include
the fixed-wing RQ-20 Puma, with a range of 6.2 miles, as well as
possibly most important offering, the Nano Hummingbird. This model is capable of
quick directional changes on all axes and can fly in any direction like its
namesake. It is also designed to resemble its namesake, taking the form of a
large hummingbird. Although the rotor-based drone would fool no one upon close
inspection, its diminutive size and natural-seeming silhouette could be used to
stealthily survey a situation from a safe distance. It is admittedly early days
for this type of morphic drone design, but Aerovironment is leading the charge
in similar developments. Aerovironment also holds the distinction
of being the top supplier for small drones to the US Department of Defense.16

  • Primary Customers – The US Department of Defense and
    other federal agencies; military contractors; high-end industrial users.
  • Primary Applications – Surveillance and reconnaissance
    of battlefield and non-combat situations; law enforcement inspection and
  • Current Flagship Model – The Puma LE, a long-endurance
    surveillance drone capable of 5.5 hours of flight time after being launched
    by hand or with a bungee. It supports a 15MP gimballed EO camera with
    features such as 50x zoom, IR sensitivity, low-light capture, and a
    high-power illuminator. The craft can also carry multi-mission payloads
    including Electronic Warfare, Communications Relays, and more.

Prox Dynamics

Prox Dynamics is in direct competition with Aerovironment for producing the
smallest, stealthiest drones. Like Aerovironment, Prox specializes in
surveillance and reconnaissance drones for military and law enforcement
customers. However, rather than attempting to conceal its drones by mimicking
nature, Prox prefers to accomplish its stealth goals through sheer lack of size.
The company’s most successful entry in this drone genre is the Black Hornet Nano.
Although it bears little resemblance to its namesake, the tiny, rotor-based
drone can easily fit in the palm of the pilot’s hand with room to spare. Despite
its diminutive size, it is capable of offering standard, night vision, and
long-wave infrared video feeds to users up to one mile away. This model, which
already has more than 3,000 units deployed, is extremely useful in hostile urban
environments where it can be used to check potentially dangerous indoor spaces
without the need to risk human lives.

  • Primary Customers – Military and law enforcement
    agencies interested in small, stealthy recon and surveillance drones,
    typically for use in life-threatening situations.
  • Primary Applications – Recon and scouting missions
    where human lives would be at risk if personnel were sent in.
  • Current Flagship Model – The Black Hornet Nano, a
    rotor-based drone that is just four inches by one inch in size, weighing a mere
    16 grams, while providing full-motion video and photo capabilities.

Titan Aerospace

Titan Aerospace is an interesting entrant on this list, having only existed in its
standalone form between 2012 and 2014. Although the company then already held
the germ of what it has become today, its primary driving force in the years
since was its acquisition by Google in April 2014.17
The search giant was very interested in Titan’s "Atmospheric Satellites." This
relatively new type of drone is designed to undertake extremely long duration
flights thanks to its onboard solar panels. The company’s more recent models are
capable of reaching altitudes of up to 20 kilometers, while staying in the air for much,
much longer than any other traditional type of drone. Although most practical
applications for this technology are still in their early stages, Google plans to use these Atmospheric Satellites to provide high-altitude imagery,
navigation and mapping services, and
cellular voice and data services. Google is
particularly interested in the last of these capabilities for its Project Loon
concept and Project Skybender prototypes, a pair of plans which would see a constant rotation of aircraft flying over
areas with little or no terrestrial telecom coverage to provide broadband
Internet and voice access.18,19 According to
Google, Titan’s most recent platform, the Solara AtmoSat, is capable of providing signal
coverage over an area of 17,800 square kilometers, potentially offering a
greater range than 100 terrestrial cell towers. Although Titan Aerospace has
been largely absorbed by Google at this point, its assets and development
progress continue to appear in some of Google’s most starry-eyed
telecommunications and networking experiments.

  • Primary Customers – Although the company is still in
    something of a pre-launch state, it is expected to provide services to
    underserved municipalities interested in broadband coverage while also
    offering atmospheric imaging services to a variety of industries and
  • Primary Applications – Airborne cellular voice and
    broadband services; high-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance; terrain
    mapping and assisted GPS services.
  • Current Flagship Model – N/A

General Atomics

General Atomics is a defense contractor involved in nearly every aspect of
military equipment and development. The company’s purview is varied enough to
include everything from nuclear reactors – its original area of interest – to
nuclear medicine, communications systems, and banking computers. However, the
firm’s most important product for this report is its well-known MQ-1 Predator
drone. This tried and tested offensive drone has been in development since the
early 1990s and has been on active duty in one form or another since 1995. The
drone has been used in numerous combat missions across multiple theaters of war,
having been involved in every major conflict the US has participated in in the
Middle East and elsewhere. The somewhat controversial (for reasons explained
above in the Military section of Current Use Cases) weapons platform has quickly
become the United States’ go-to attack vehicle for areas where a ground war
would prove too costly in money and human lives. Although the concept of armed,
unmanned machines capable of delivering deadly payloads to far-flung locations
is a nightmare for many, it comes a dream for soldiers that would otherwise have
to put their lives on the line in combat were it not for the likes of the
Predator drone.

  • Primary Customers – The US Air Force and Central
    Intelligence Agency.
  • Primary Applications – Airborne reconnaissance and
    surveillance; armed combat and weapons delivery.
  • Current Flagship Model – The MQ -1 Predator, capable of
    providing live photo and video feeds, as well as carrying up to two AGM-114
    Hellfire missiles or other weapons systems.


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To come full circle, drones are, more than ever, becoming a fact
of life. They inspect our structures, entertain us, produce our movies, fight
our wars, and may soon deliver our packages and provide our Internet. With these
new tools already so tightly woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, it is
hard to imagine anything ever reversing the rampant growth of drone technology.
Yes, it does come with some dangers, like any new technology. We should, of course, remain vigilant to the
dangers posed by developing drone technology, but not to the point of paranoia.
Drone technology is just another
tool in the growing number of capabilities humanity has created for itself.
Whether it is used for the benefit or detriment of man in the coming years is up
to us.

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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software and the IT services sector, as well
as telecommunications and data networking.

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