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Editorial Feature

What is a drone anyway?

Words By: Robert Garbett

It's a question that might get you laughed out of any self-respecting futurologist’s dinner party, but in a world where drones are poised to have a tremendous impact on our daily lives, it is one that bears asking. 

When most people think of drones, they see a little plastic quadcopter flown around by their neighbour’s annoying kids, or the menacing fixed wing aircraft delivering controversy to the Middle East, but neither of those paint a complete picture of what the word ‘drone’ actually means, and knowing why that is the case, as well as what that complete picture actually entails, is vital to understanding the nature of the drone industry at large. 

At its most basic, dictionary-derived level, a drone is an unmanned vehicle guided by either remote control or onboard software. The big takeaway from the first part of that definition is the word ‘vehicle.’ While most of the headline-grabbing, future-seeking drone applications involve Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), the drone umbrella covers more than just the air. 

In basic terms, if it goes, and it goes without a pilot on board, it's a drone, whether it operates in the surface (ground or marine), underwater, in the air or in space, or any combination of each. 

A remote-controlled drone is fairly simple: A pilot, from a control station separate from the drone itself, operates the vehicle. The complexity of both the control system, and of the vehicle, can vary with their intended application. Whether it’s a handheld radio-controller, or a desk-sized terminal buried deep inside a military base, the concept is the same; an interface to relay pilot instructions to the drone, without the pilot being on the drone itself.

Drones that operate using onboard software are more complicated. Unlike their remote-controlled counterparts, these vehicles do not require a human pilot. Instead, they use either autonomous systems to operate to varying levels of complexity. 

The very basic autonomous drones (sometimes referred to as 'Automatic' or Level 0) have pre-programmed instructions: A set flight path, a driving route, or any other rigid plan of operation. A Level 0 autonomous drone can follow this plan without any human assistance (although human supervision is typically standard), but would be unable to adapt if, for example, a storm intersected their intended route. In that case, the drone would require a higher level degree of autonomy to protect itself from potential hazards (Levels 1 - 5). 

Higher levels of autonomy refers to a vehicle’s ability to make decisions independent of any human operator. An autonomous drone would be able to not only operate within a pre-programmed plan without direct human operation, but would also be able to deviate from that plan to protect itself, or to more efficiently complete whatever task it has been assigned.

This distinction can be difficult to apply to real-life applications, so here’s an example that demonstrates it: Take a search-and-rescue situation, where one or more hikers are lost in the woods of some national park. A UAS, likely a long-range, fixed-wing vehicle, would be able to assist search-and-rescue teams in locating them, due to their ability to cover large distances more efficiently (and less expensively) than traditional piloted aircraft. Think about two kinds of UAS: A Level 0 model, and a fully autonomous model (Level 5). We’ll assume other functionality (sensors, flight envelope, etc.) remains constant between the two for the purposes of the example. 

A Level 0 autonomous drone would have a rigid flight plan to follow, designed by rescue teams to cover the most ground possible, and it would fly that route, collecting data as it went. Its sensor suite would be able to detect the missing hikers, or at least, potential hikers (most likely through some form of thermal imaging). It may even be able to notify rescue teams when it finds something. But that’s where its usefulness would end. It wouldn’t be able to leave its assigned route, or take any action beyond simple data collection and reporting. 

A Level 5 autonomous drone, on the other hand, wouldn’t require a set flight plan. Operators would simply give the drone data on things like the hikers last known location, likely intended paths, or anything else that may help to locate them, and the vehicle would be able to formulate a route on its own. When the drone found a hiker, its options for assistance would also be much more comprehensive, beyond simply calling for help and continuing on its way. A fully autonomous drone would be able to divert itself to remain in proximity to the hiker, continuing its surveillance until rescue arrives, or drop aid packages carried onboard. One could even envision a future where these drones could rescue the hikers themselves. We can dream about all the different gadgets and toys we could attach to an autonomous drone all day, but the main takeaway from this example is this: Both automatic and autonomous drones can operate without a human pilot, but an autonomous drone would have a much deeper suite of functionality and adaptability to work with.

But why does any of this matter? If autonomous and remote-controlled drones have such different capabilities, why are they grouped under the same blanket term? Why do we need such a large umbrella to cover such a wide variety of vehicles that may operate in so many different environments? We don’t think of cars, planes, and boats as variations on the same thing, why should drones be any different?

The answer is simple...Because, while cars, planes, and boats are rigidly stuck in their one role, with very few exceptions, the nature the evolution of drones, driven by the massive range of applications for such technology, allows for significantly greater fluidity in operation.  A flying drone may be able to dive under water, or land and operate on the ground or have amphibious capabilities.  So, while thinking about (and legislating) a driverless car alongside a delivery quadcopter may be strange, it is important that we have an understandable term for all unmanned systems, because it is very likely that the car, the quadcopter and the boat may be part of the same vehicle at some point, and having a terminology and regulatory framework that can encompass both of them is crucial to the healthy development of the industry.

For clarity, the definition of a drone is 'any vehicle, ship, aircraft or hybrid system which is remotely or autonomously controlled. Now think about that for a moment and you will start to realise the potential of this dynamic, fast moving new industry.

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