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March 20, 2015



The term “drone” now includes small electric helicopters with two, four, six or more rotors. These drones are unmanned, flown by remote control, highly maneuverable and very versatile.  

Although larger jet or gas engine drones are used by the military for reconnaissance or search and destroy missions, non-military drones are becoming increasingly popular for many other uses. Here’s a look at some of these uses:

Search and rescue: By attaching a camera to the drone you can see in real time what’s in view of the camera, record what’s seen, and use it for instant playback or later review. The drone can be programmed to follow a defined search pattern guided by GPS (global positioning system) coordinates, making it easy and accurate to return to a specific spot where the missing or lost person may have been seen.

By attaching an infrared thermal image camera to the drone, searches can be continued after dark by looking for the heat signature of the person lost. This type of thermal imaging can also be used in the cases of persons buried by an avalanche, where the heat signature may be identified through the snow and the spot GPS tagged for rescuers on the ground. Similarly, in cases of natural disasters, drone mounted cameras can be used to help assess the extent of damage.

A very practical advantage of using a drone is the small cost as compared to a manned helicopter. In addition, the small size and maneuverability of the drone allows searching areas not readily accessible to much larger helicopters. The drone can also deliver survival supplies to the found person.

The interest in searching for missing persons has attracted a large group of citizen volunteers called S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial Radio-controlled Multi-rotor) (, a worldwide volunteer search and rescue network of more than 1,100 SAR Drone Pilots dedicated to searching for missing persons.

Arial photography: Pictures taken using the perspective afforded by a drone camera are not easily matched by any other method. These include scenery, homes, neighborhoods, sports, “dronies” (think selfies), and many others. By using a drone mounted GPS in addition to the camera, very accurate mapping and surveying is possible.

Drone mounted cameras are also increasingly used by Hollywood film makers because of the unique perspectives afforded by the drone and, of course, the lower cost compared to using helicopters.

Agriculture: Potentially one of the biggest uses of drones is in assessment of crops. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that eventually 80% of commercial drone usage will be for agriculture. Using different sensors and techniques, you’ll be able to determine areas of crop damage, insect infestation and soil moisture content, all in time to take the appropriate corrective action if needed.

News Media: It seems a natural to use drones in the collection of up-to-the minute photos or video of current news events. Unfortunately, until the FAA publishes the regulations for the commercial use of drones, the media is forbidden from using them. Despite that, however, at least two universities have already incorporated the use of drones into their journalism courses.

Environmental Studies: By providing a more convenient and economical way to track changes in plant and animal health and distribution, drones can help in the assessment of effects of climate change, pollution and other influences.

Delivery by Drone: The recent announcement by and that they would begin trials of delivery of orders using drones caused much discussion. The delivery company DHL is ahead of them and has already started using drones for a regular delivery service between Germany and a small island called Juist in the North Sea, 7.5 miles off the coast of Germany.

The uses of drones continues to increase, but there are a few decided disadvantages to drones. One is the relatively short flight time (about 30 to 45 minutes) before having to return for a recharge or battery swap.

Another problem using conventional drones is that they are limited to operation in relatively wide open spaces, although there has been some advancement in equipping them with collision avoidance devices. An interesting approach to this problem is the GimBal (, a drone nested in a gimbal mount inside a round, flexible cage. This allows the drone to directly interact with its surroundings by bouncing off walls, floors and obstructions. This type of drone is programed to find its way around or through obstructions and continue in its original direction.

The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act contains a seven-page provision (known as the Drone Act) requiring the FAA to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System by September 2015. Additionally, the Drone Act allows law enforcement agencies, including local police forces, to buy and use unmanned aircraft for evidence gathering and surveillance.

The FAA cannot regulate the use of model drones or airplanes by hobbyists as long as they operate within certain basic limitations. These types of crafts must weigh less than 55 pounds, cannot fly higher than 500 feet above the ground, cannot fly over people or faster than 100 mph or interfere with manned airplane traffic and, if the craft is operated within five miles of an airport, the operator must contact airport personnel. The operator has to be 17 years of age or older.

It is estimated that by 2020 there may be more than 30,000 licensed drones in operation in the United States, so we’ll be seeing many more of them soon. Stay tuned.