Two reports published this month show just how rapidly spending on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is set to increase. Earlier this month, consultancy Markets and Markets published a report which estimates that the UAV market will grow to $8.3bn by 2018.
The year 2018 is significant in that revisions to CAP-722, the Civil Aviation Authority Provision detailing the safety requirements that must be met by Unmanned Aerial Systems, will come into force. This has the potential to unlock significant airspace, leading to more extensive use of UAVs, particularly for civil applications.
These increased opportunities undoubtedly have an impact on the further reaching report by U.S. analysts, Teal Group
, released this week, which predicts that the worldwide UAV market will total $89bn by 2023 and is the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry. The study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade
"The UAV market is evolving, it is becoming an increasingly international market as it grows," said Philip Finnegan, Teal Group's director of corporate analysis and an author of the study. "UAVs have proved their value in Iraq and Afghanistan and are being sought by a growing number of militaries worldwide".
One of the most famous UAV’s, a drone (the capability to fly a pre-programmed flight path is what distinguishes a drone from a UAV) is Global Hawk, the US Air Forces' long range surveillance vehicle. It can fly for more than 28 hours and has a maximum range of 8,700 miles (14,000km).
Designed to work during wartime to help ground teams monitor enemy activity and assess battle damage, it’s also effective for natural disasters and was also recently used by the US space agency Nasa to check changes in the environment.
Not to be outdone, the UK has the Tarantula-Hawk (T-Hawk) which is used by the British Army in Afghanistan to check for roadside bombs. It takes off vertically and hovers to get a clear view of the ground, clearing routes for large convoys.
Operated by the RAF and US Air Force, Reaper is a drone that can carry two guided bombs and four hellfire rockets to attack targets on the ground. This aircraft has come in for particular criticism as it’s one of the first specifically designed to carry weapons.
Taranis, a British experimental stealth drone, which will be able to fly faster than the speed of sound, has also raised concerns that the future could see drones fly into enemy territory without being seen by radar, fire weapons at pre-designated targets and return to base without any form of input during the mission.
Recent developments also include the launch of a European medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV program by three of Europe’s biggest aerospace companies.
The ethical issues arising from the use of drones for military purposes has very much dominated the discussion of UAV technology. However, in the UK particularly, there are myriad applications and strong historical advantages for the design and manufacture of UAVs.
However more effective communication of the many different categories and capabilities of UAVs is needed. Publicising the civilian advantages of UAVs - from traffic management to security and film and TV industry applications - is also a way to educate the public that this technology can be hugely beneficial.
At a recent roundtable named Garden Drones, organised by RAS SIG, Paddy Davies of Horizon AP, a UAV manufacturor specialising in aerial photography, cinematography and data acquisition, showed how public interest can be aroused.
“When you fly a small UAV,” he enthused, “there is always a kind of fascination from members of the public in the vicinity. This seems a good way into detangling the narrative that autonomous systems are killing machines”.
In the UK, presently, over 200 firms work in this space in a wide range of sectors, from geological surveys to border monitoring for landlocked nations and filming for live TV events. However such diverse applications and the correspondingly wide geographic spread of these SMEs mean they're often all but invisible, as a body, to government agencies, as well as the public.
A consortium of UK companies, ASTREA, producing the technology that underpins UAVs, does exist. However, it’s dominated by the bigger firms interested in building large systems rather the small scale, experimental, models which many of the SME’s are interested in.
The creation of a small scale co-ordination group for SMEs is a possible solution and Technology Srategy Board support, through the RAS SIG, could be available for such an enterprise.
A further complication is the legislation required to fly the UAV, this can be detrimental to business. A two week turnaround is irksome not only because operator licenses are granted by a third-party agency but operators are also manufacturers and so must regularly tweak how vehicles are built. This often means having to re-apply for permission.
There are also concerns that the Civil Aviation Authority is under resourced to deal with specialist requests for smaller vehicles. Similar issues exist regarding the effectiveness of the UAV Association to represent the industry internationally.
The sky's the limit?
Once effective regulation and representation are dealt with, the possibilities are very exciting. In a robot lab at June’s TEDGlobal, roboticist Raffaello D'Andrea demo’d his flying quadcopters: robots that think like athletes, solving physical problems with algorithms that help them learn.
The quadcopter's main appeal for drone makers lies in its scalability – it can be designed to fit into a palm, or large enough to mount expensive cameras and other gadgets.
Using photographic sensors on UAV’s will revolutionise monitoring applications and private communication networks could be created with UAVs at higher altitudes, creating localised temporary communication networks for anything from a music concert to a film set.
Physical limitations are, however, still very obvious. Applications for creating networks, using a small UAV system are still far off mainly because of battery constraints (15 minutes for most kits).
The various limitations have meant that building drones has perhaps been most successful in either large scale systems or very small - home made - ones. But the latter shouldn’t be under estimated. Home drone building is becoming very popular in the UK, supported by lively online forums and the emergence of companies selling hardware components to individuals. The software which enables this is freely available online. Arduino, known as "electronics prototyping software", has been used to develop the platform ArduCopter
, widely adopted by most amateur drone makers to power their vehicles.
The drone enthusiasts have also affiliated themselves with the much bigger "maker" movement and April’s Newcastle Maker Faire featured a live flying demonstration field.
Some exhibitors, such as Oxfordshire’s Universal Air
have ambitions which go well beyond home drone building. UA used the Faire to show off its first mass-market quadcopter drone and, according to its website, wants to get one of its devices into "every household" in the country.
The company's Kickstarter-funded quadcopter can be assembled with just an Allen key and controlled with an XBox. While the GPS technology and free software used to develop the drone is relatively new, the quadcopter design is based on one of the earliest helicopter models, originally built in 1920.
The arrival of self-assembly drones on the mass market will also make it harder to tell which are licensed for commercial purposes and which are being operated by civilians. However whether this will ease restrictions for business is a question yet to be answered.