Drones, though only recently gaining popularity with the public, have been around for over a century at the earliest. The basic drone definition is a vehicle that operates without a human driver or pilot physically inside of it. These unmanned vehicles can have specific functions programmed into their code to execute on their own or, more commonly, be remotely controlled by a human nearby.
Drones fall into a broad spectrum of designs and application, below are some of the fundamental categories
Drones are a broad category of technology, spanning many different designs, equipment, and functions. They can be used for a wide variety of things, and each use has its own unique set of specifications. To categorize all of this, drones can be separated into five main categories: land, surface, underwater, air, and space. Each category can be further separated to better understand their use or function.
Land: Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) are vehicles that run on solid ground without a driver present on or inside of them. They are either autonomous with a set of pre-programmed commands and actions they can perform on their own or are remote-operated. UGVs are generally used when sending a human into an area would be dangerous or ineffective, such as rough terrain or into hostile territory. They can be separated into a few broad categories based on function.
-Using Weapons: Exclusively in use by the military, weaponized UGVs are sent out to the battlefield to do battle where human lives can’t be expended. They are also used to test weapons and ammunition.
-Supply Delivery: Supply drones were created to carry things over to soldiers or campsites that are stationed on difficult terrain. Where it would be inefficient and time-consuming for humans to go back and forth, UGVs are specifically designed to make the trips with ease.
-Research: Similarly, some areas that scientists are interested in researching can be difficult to get to, such as mountaintops or rocky ground. Drones can be sent to explore these areas and collect data and samples to be brought back and studied.
-Transportation: Larger varieties of UGVs can be used as transportation for small groups. This is most commonly seen in tourism areas, where a remotely controlled car can take people on a guided tour of an area.
Surface Water: Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) are vehicles that float over the surface of water without a pilot on board. They are cheap to make and easy to control, so they are often used for navy target practice and mine hunting. They are also more reliable than stationary weather buoys, making them useful for weather research, oceanography, and energy gathering. USVs are classified mostly by their range of use or function.
-Coastal: These short-range drones are used mostly to monitor changes in the water near land or to aid divers in data collection.
-Offshore: Offshore USVs are used to carry supplies to oceanic bases, gather data from a wider area, or search the deep ocean using radar.
-Targets: Target USVs are cheap, simple, lightweight vessels. They are used as target practise by the military or navy. They can also be used to test the controls and command of a human-manned ship.
-Scouts: Scout drones are used by the military during training exercises or in the field to stealthily infiltrate enemy waters and gather information. Their data recording capabilities can also be used to aid scientists and researchers in studying weather or marine life.
Underwater: Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) are vehicles that dive underwater, usually where humans can not. They are common in extremely low depths where water pressure is very high. They are also sent into polluted water, to search for mines or torpedoes, or to map out unknown areas of the sea floor. UUVs are connected to an operating station, either on land or on a water vessel, by a tether or cord. The crew in the operating station sends information along this tether to command it and tell it what to do. These drones are divided into categories based on size, weight, or power.
-Micro: Micro UUVs are smaller than a human and are mostly used to enter tight spaces, such as pipes or crevices.
-Mini: A little larger, these UUVs are usually about the same size as a human. They can be taken far out to sea and used in place of a diver to better study data and statistics from on board.
-Inspection: Able to descend to an average of 2,000 meters, inspection class UUVs use sonar, photography, video cameras, and sensors to collect data and samples for research.
-Work class: Both light and heavy work class UUVs carry manipulators, electronic arms that can perform maintenance or construction at depths that humans can’t reach.
-Cable Laying: These drones can descend up to 6,000 meters to dig trenches, lay power cables, and rebury them.
Air: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are aircraft that carry out tasks or missions without human pilots. When an airspace is too dangerous for piloted planes to enter, military UAVs are sent instead to scout or deploy bombs. Their high maneuverability also makes them useful in capturing videos and delivering packages. UAVs are loosely categorized by their function.
Target: Target drones are cheaply made, lightweight planes that are used in military training. They are either remote controlled or have preprogrammed flight patterns made to mimic enemy planes.
Scout: Scout, spy, or reconnaissance drones are sent ahead of soldiers to battlefields or hostile zones to map out areas and gather information on the enemy.
Combat: When an area is too dangerous for human pilots to enter battle, UAVs are sent instead to attack with significantly less risk.
Supply Delivery: Similarly, sometimes it can be too dangerous or simply impractical to deliver supplies in person. In this case, drones are used to carry in cargo.
Research: Aerial drones can be used to collect data about air quality, predict weather, and map large areas of ground underneath.
Commercial: Commercial drones are what most people are familiar with. These small drones can be remotely controlled by anyone from large corporations to the average person and used for many purposes. They are separated into further categories based on size, number of propellers, range, and what equipment they come with.
Space: Unmanned Spacecraft are vehicles that are sent into orbit, the moon, or to other planets without a human on board. They can be controlled by humans from space stations on earth or have pre-programmed operations to execute once they reach their destination. Every space drone is categorized based on its function.
-Robotic Spacecraft: More commonly referred to as landers or rovers, these drones are the ones that land on moons or planets to take pictures and collect data to send back to Earth for study.
-Resupply: These drones are used to carry supplies from Earth to astronauts on space stations in orbit.
-Probes: Space probes explore space as far as humans can send them, from the moon to all the way out in interstellar space. They are used mostly for exploration and discoveries, sending back the data they find to help humans learn about the endless universe.
-Observatories: Space observatories are large telescopes sent out into orbit to observe faraway planets, stars, ultraviolet frequencies, gamma rays, or other space phenomena. They have an advantage over land telescopes due to the lack of light pollution.
History of Drones
Most drones were invented for military purposes. The very first example of unmanned aerial warfare was in 1849, when the Austrian army sent balloons carrying heavy bombs over to drop on Italy. In 1898, famed inventor Nikola Tesla designed and showcased some ideas for a radio controlled boat, and then a fleet of radio-controlled planes. His blueprints laid the groundwork for the first real drones and their future improvements.
In the beginning, UAVs were used as target practise during military training. Through innovation and the pressures of wartime, these early drones were expanded to pilotless torpedos and small remote controlled planes. During the Vietnam War, the need for aerial drones soared to cut back on the losses of pilots. From there, UAVs were enhanced even further to carry bombs, take reconnaissance photos, stealthily map areas with radar, serve as decoys for anti-aircraft missiles, and carry out high-risk missions that required speed and agility.
Similarly, the first UGV was created as a technological novelty and was then improved and modified into a military tank in the 1930’s. These remote-controlled tanks were used to fire at enemy ranks without sacrificing human soldiers. They also were used to find and deposit mines and as decoys. UUVs became common in the 1970’s, where they would search underwater for torpedoes or mines. Underwater search and recovery missions were also carried out with these drones. USVs and space drones are more recent inventions, both only being used reliably in the last few decades. USVs were again first used by the military as target practise and improved from there, but space drones have always been designed for research and exploration.
Before they were called drones, these unmanned vehicles were referred to exclusively as their acronyms. That changed relatively early on for UAVs in 1935, when the British created a new type of plane to serve as target practise. The low buzzing sound it made as it flew through the ir led the soldiers to nickname it the “Queen Bee.” When multiple planes were in the sky, the soldiers took the bee metaphor further and likened them to the sound of hundreds of drone bees buzzing around outside–and thus, the “drone” nickname was born. This carried over to the land, water, and space versions even though none of them made the noise.
Once the military had improved and increased production on their drones to the point that they became cheaper and easier to make, like many things, they became more available to the public for recreational use. Remote-controlled cars, planes, and submarines all became popular toys or hobby items and other industries began to modify them to fit their needs. Aerial drones in particular have been rapidly rising in popularity due to their accessibility and how they enable average people to create content. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued over double the number of drone permits in just the last few years alone.
Other Uses of Drones
While the military continues to use and improve drones for their use, other industries and civilians are beginning to use them more and more. Researchers from all fields use drones to collect data from mountain peaks, unmapped caves, deep forests, underwater trenches, and other areas inaccessible to humans. Wildlife researchers use drones to monitor animals that avoid humans or that they can’t be with all the time. The agriculture industry in particular uses ground drones to monitor crops with sensors and routine check ups. Aerial drones are used to collect data on on air pressure, track storms, and predict weather.
The government also uses drones for work in law enforcement and construction. Police are given drones to carry out reconnaissance on targeted criminals, increase crowd surveillance, and provide updates during emergencies. Search and rescue missions also require drones to use scanners and radar to locate missing persons quickly, and border patrol uses drones to monitor smugglers. When a building is being built or inspected, drones are used to inspect visual structure as well as scan for any weaknesses in the infrastructure.
From an entertainment perspective, drones have long been used to achieve wide, smooth shots for movies and other productions. They can capture live concerts from the air and take stunning photographs. Journalism and news reports also benefit from aerial drones by having them film from otherwise inaccessible angles. Even the average person with a cheap drone can enter drone races, acrobatics competitions, perform tricks, or come up with their own form of entertainment to post online. The rapidly rising popularity of aerial drones has opened the doors for many more applications that have yet to be discovered.