Although aerial drones been around in one form or another since World War I, it hasn’t really been until the last decade that they’ve really taken off, so to speak. Where they were once restricted to a spot of battlefield reconnaissance, in addition to military applications, drones are now used for everything from agriculture to oil prospecting and by everyone from rescue workers to real estate agents. Although the technological advances and proliferation of drones has accelerated over the past decade, 2013 was the year that the technology really entered the public consciousness. So let’s have a look back at Gizmag’s pick of the top drone stories of 2013.
Drone helps save a man’s life
Drones are often in the news for controversial events, such as their use in firing missiles on suspected terrorists or in surveillance of the public. But every now and again we get stories of UAVs of protecting or even saving lives, such as last May when a quadcopter was used to help rescue a man from freezing to death in Canada.
On May 9, at 12:20 am, the Saskatoon RCMP received a report of a single-vehicle rollover in the countryside at near-freezing temperatures. Though the car was found, the driver, who was lightly clad and had lost his shoes in the accident, was nowhere to be seen. An air ambulance helicopter was called in and the crew used a night vision system to conduct a larger aerial search. When that also proved fruitless, the RCMP brought in the detachment’s forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera-equipped Draganflyer X4-ES quadcopter.
Built by Saskatoon-based Draganfly Innovations, the X4-ES was set to work and when the 25-year old driver, who was wandering lost, made an emergency call from his mobile phone, the police were able to use his phone’s GPS coordinates to locate his general position two miles (3.2 km) south of the accident site. Sent to the area, the X4-ES was able to pinpoint the driver’s heat signature, allowing emergency services to recover the now unconscious man before he suffered what could have been fatal exposure.
Submarine UAV launch
December 5 saw a drone launched from an underwater US Navy submarine. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) launched the all-electric eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System (XFC) from the Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Providence (SSN 719) using a system that allowed the drone to be deployed without modifications to the boat, or requiring it to surface.
The XFC unmanned aircraft was developed by the NRL in less than six years from initial concept to current stage. It is all-electric and powered by a fuel cell that allows it to stay aloft for more than six hours. According to the NRL, the UAV is relatively low cost, flies at low altitude, and is designed for Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The craft has folding wings and is designed to be launched from a pickup truck or small surface vessel.
Launched using a “Sea Robin” vehicle, the XFC used its electrically-assisted take-off system to raise itself vertically out of the container, and after reaching operating speed and altitude unfolded its wings for horizontal flight. The XFC flew for several hours as it beamed back a video feed to the Providence.
Move over Batman, AirMule is on the job – or soon may be, if its flight tests work out. The unmanned AirMule VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) prototype aircraft demonstrated its stuff this month as it flew autonomously in anticipation of a full mission demo. It’s made by Israel's Tactical Robotics Ltd., and can be flown either by remote control or autonomously. Among other things, it's intended for the evacuation of wounded personnel in war zones while under anti-aircraft fire.
With a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), and a potential top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), what gives AirMule its Dark Knight vibe are the internal rotor blades contained within its body (as distinct from the shrouded props at the back). This design feature should allow it to land in tight or uneven areas where the open blades of a regular helicopter could be damaged by striking objects or, worse, people.
Full mission demonstrations are planned for next year using a second prototype now under construction.
Amazon's Prime Air
We knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Once quadcopters were able to lift more than their own weight, they’d soon be put to work delivering everything from junk food to defibrillators. Now Amazon has got into the act with CEO Jeff Bezos revealing plans for Prime Air (an extension of Amazon Prime which guarantees two-day shipping) in a 60 Minutes interview that would use drones to airlift purchases to customers who really can’t wait.
The planned service is restricted to loads of five pounds (2.3 kg) in small plastic containers slung beneath Amazon's custom-built "octocopter," so don’t expect Amazon to be dropping flat screen televisions on your doorstep by air. And with a maximum range of 10 miles (16 km) from one of Amazon's fulfillment centers, it will only service a somewhat limited customer base.
However, the biggest stumbling block is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Amazon hopes to get legal clearance for the service by 2015, but that could be a tad optimistic. In the wake of the 60 Minutes story, the FAA released a statement saying:
"So far, only a single commercial UAS operator has been approved to operate, and it is in the Arctic. UAS operators must abide by local, state and federal privacy laws. Over the next several years the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted UAS to meet increased demand. Autonomous UAS operation is not currently allowed in the United States."
And finally, we have the clearest proof of the arrival of the drone age with the supervillain's quadcopter, Skyjack: a drone designed to hijack other drones and take control of them. Hacker Samy Kamkar took a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, customized it with with a Raspberry Pi, a USB battery, and two wireless adapters, then uploaded his software into it. The result is a drone that seeks out the wireless command signals of other drones, overrides them, then turns them into “zombie drones” under the control of Skyjack’s pilot on the ground.
What the effect of Skyjack and its descendants will have on the drone future, only time will tell, but if you’re waiting for you Amazon delivery coming via AirMule launched from a submarine, only to see it veer off at the last minute to join a drone armada bent on world domination, you can’t say we didn’t see it coming.