Drones are showing up more and more in our world. As both serious tools of surveillance and children’s toys. This increase in a potentially valuable technology has also created some confusion. Today, we are going to look at some of the basics in the world of drones, talk about how they are used now and then assess how a non-specialist individual or organization can use drones to get a birds eye view of the world around them. So let’s get started with Part One, where we will look at how drones are used currently.

Who is using drone tech for monitoring purposes?

For the most part drones are currently in use by military, police and other government agencies. There is also rising usage in commercial operations such as mining, marketing and construction. The overall consensus regarding the current usage is that you send in a drone where a job is too dangerous/difficult for a human or where an aerial view is preferred.  Drones for surveillance have not seen wide scale urban integration because of legal and piloting considerations.

So what’s slowing the growth in urban areas? For any unmanned vehicle there is the issue of path interference. Current drone tech still requires a capable pilot with a clear view of the path to deal with the kinds of obstacles presented by moving people, vehicles, etc. Navigation around dynamic obstacles is a skill that few pilots can manage for a drone and keeping a clear view of where the drone is in 3D space can be almost impossible without significant advances in on-board sensory tech. Should a collision occur or a drone simply drop from the sky onto another’s property, for example, the pilot could be facing a lawsuit, criminal prosecution and even problems with insurance coverage. The lack of processes and laws for addressing drone tech among civilian populations presents both opportunity and a minefield.

What are the current limitations to the technology of drones?

Drones are currently limited in two main areas, battery life and onboard camera. Most of the cameras put into drones perform just fine when they are stationary and some can even provide real time video but when it comes to using them while in flight, cameras on the lower/more affordable end of the spectrum can drop in resolution, quality and ability to compensate for motion. The lower the cost, the more likely you are to face limitations such as having to specify how often images are taken, with a set time between images and no manual control. The more archaic the technology, the less suitable the drone will be for surveillance.

The other major issue, battery life, means some drones may not be able to complete a security scan without needing to recharge. Some of the more popular and higher end options only offer a 20 min fly time. This is another area where cheaper drones fail to provide value for surveillance as they typically do not provide solutions to a low battery. The pricier drones offer features that have the drone land (rather than crash) when the battery gets past a certain point. Others even offer autonomous flight back to the pilot when a power threshold is reached. Batteries are often specially made, expensive and require special rechargers. Given the limitations of current battery tech, this can present both cost and logistical issues for commercial surveillance (unless an organization is willing to invest in expensive, cutting edge models).

Now that you have an idea of the limitations and the benefits of drones in the current market, consider moving on to Part Two. In the second piece of this drones series, we will be looking more in depth at the legal issues surrounding drones. We will also be taking a look at some places where drones should go and a few places that they should never be sent. See you in part two!