Today, consumer markets are pushing the pace of chip development, and innovations that originated with the military – like the Internet ( which sprang from the US Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ARPAnet ) and GPS navigation are now being driven forward more quickly than ever to meet the needs of commerce and consumption.
Drones (aka Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) in Europe, or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) in the USA) are quickly writing the next chapter of this “swords into ploughshares” story. Although the earliest example of an unmanned aerial vehicle appeared in 1849, and the state of the art moved on to wirelessly controlled types before the Second World War, more recent drone development has happened largely within the military for purposes such as covert surveillance and highly targeted strikes.
Now, we can see drones flying at the park and watch amazing aerial videos on YouTube. A number of technological advances are behind the current surge in civilian interest. These include affordable access to high-performance processors capable of performing sensor fusion and real-time flight adjustment. Moreover, energy-efficient processing driven by the smartphone revolution has enabled lightweight drones that can fly for a useful period of time with minimal battery power. Perhaps most important of all, the MEMS revolution has shrunk the gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers at the heart of the Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (AHRS) and Inertial Navigation Systems, essential for autonomous flight.
Burgeoning Commercial Opportunities
As technical advances reduce size, weight, and cost, more and more people are using drones for fun. There are also numerous opportunities for new types of entertainment and commercial services. When equipped with an on-board camera, for example, the drone can be used in a huge variety of applications, such as sports photography, land surveying and mapping, border patrol, agriculture, logistics, and entertainment.
Hobbyists have naturally seen competitive opportunities such as racing. This year, the Drone Racing League (DRL) is looking to transform the hobby into a stadium sport. Drone racing today is done by experienced pilots wearing goggles that provide them a live First Person View (FPV) from the drone’s on-board camera that allows both the pilot and spectators to feel like they are in the cockpit (Figure 1). Big Prizes are already on offer: a teenager won $250,000 at a drone race last year in Dubai.
Figure 1: Pilot’s-eye view of flying in the Drone Racing League (Image courtesy of Drone Racing League)
Drone-on-drone dogfights are another growing form of entertainment, taking advantage of technical advances such as HD-video streaming and precision controls for flying and shooting. In venues such as New York City warehouses, pilots are now using immersive goggles to step into their drones and take to the air, flying around while shooting foam Nerf discs at each other.
Besides physical projectiles, virtual weapons are also part of the drone arsenal. TobyRich Vegas (Figure 2) is a successfully funded kickstarter project that merges drone flying with augmented reality to let you play out your WWII aerial fantasies from the comfort of your smartphone.