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A world apart: from toys to weapons to industrial tools, not all drones are created equal

TechnologyA world apart: from toys to weapons to industrial tools, not all drones are created equal

Considering the huge variety of drones currently in production, it’s fascinating that they’re all commonly referred to as drones. Sure, it’s technically true that a $200 quadcopter that can be purchased on Amazon is as much a drone as an industrial-grade drone that can detect a chemical leak or a military-grade drone carrying a bomb, but it does seem like it’s time a few of the main types of drones start being identified by more accurate names.

Other than being impressive unmanned flying things, the fact is that consumer-grade drones, unmanned aerial combat vehicles and industrial grade multitools don’t have that much in common.

Consumer-grade drones

Consumer-grade drones available from the major retailers may be expensive for the average person, and they may have a number of impressive capabilities, and they may be really, really cool, but in the grand scheme of drones, they’re really just toys.

Some of the most intensive missions these hobby fliers are expected to complete are, say, filming a skier carving up a black diamond slope, or filming a wedding through a canopy of sequoias. No one would argue that consumer-grade drones aren’t an impressive technology, but they just aren’t built to stand up to extreme environments, to survive a serious crash, to fly with down-to-the-millimeter precision, or to be equipped with multiple sensors or payloads to extend their applications. They can’t be – any one of the above would put consumer-grade drones at a price point that’s beyond the vast majority of consumers. There is a place for expensive drones, but the consumer market isn’t it.

Unmanned aerial combat vehicles

This is the sector in which hundreds of million dollars are being spent per unit. Consumer-drones may be the most common these days, but the military is where drones got their start – drone-like aerial vehicles can be traced all the way back to the ‘30s in Britain, though it wasn’t until the Obama administration that combat drones equipped with weaponry gained increased publicity (as well as scrutiny).

Unmanned aerial combat vehicles have a range of uses, from exploratory missions, surveillance, reconnaissance, providing visibility into dangerous situations, aiding in search and rescue and, yes, dropping explosives. Military drones aren’t only used in combat situations, however. They are widely used in disaster situations as well as relief efforts, such as after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and following Typhoon Haiyan.

As one can imagine, with human lives hanging in the balance – military, civilian and otherwise – the research and development that goes into unmanned aerial combat is absolutely cutting-edge and has the expenses to match. The Global Hawk program, for example, produced 42 drones and cost 10 billion dollars. For military-grade drones, robustness for adverse weather conditions, flying time, precision, communication systems and payload adaption have been prioritized, and future improvements will include stealth technology to avoid anti-aircraft weaponry.

Industrial-grade drones

Though they may not have hundred million dollar price tags, one thing industrial-grade drones actually do have in common with unmanned aerial combat vehicles is that they are also designed with an uncompromising emphasis on cutting-edge technology. Producing a drone that can thrive in industrial environments requires starting with a robust, reliable, safe and time and cost-efficient drone that is then further evolved into a multitool with swappable payloads for completing a wide range of tasks in industries ranging from security, energy, mining, transportation, telecommunications and agriculture.

Not all industrial-grade drones are multitools, however. In fact, not all industrial-grade drones are industrial-grade at all, with many suffering from the cheaper manufacturing associated with consumer-grade drones. A true industrial-grade drone has to be built rugged to withstand harsh industrial environments and reduce downtime associated with maintenance and repairs.

Top industrial-grade drones also have superior data gathering and data processing capabilities, automating processes once put on the shoulders of payload operators and data processors. Speaking of automation, a select few industrial-grade drone manufacturers have been able to eliminate the need for even a human pilot, fully automating the drone’s entire operations including launching, flying, data collection, transmission and processing, landing and maintenance including battery and payload swapping.

As leading industrial drone manufacturers Airobotics say in their guide to the different types of drone technology, this was an important step because not only is having a human pilot available for preplanned and on-demand missions prohibitively expensive, but every minute counts for protecting human lives and preventing damage when it comes to incident response in industry, and with a truly automated drone emergency response and on-demand launching can be instant.

To qualify as an industrial-grade multitool, an industrial-grade drone must have a swappable payload system that allows it to be equipped with a variety of sensors and cameras necessary for completing a wide range of tasks – everything from routine infrastructure inspection and stockpile evaluation to intruder detection and chemical leak alerts. The Airobotics drone, for instance, has automated payload swapping which is accomplished by a robotic arm in its docking base – making it not just an industrial-grade multitool, but a fully automatic industrial-grade multitool.

A drone by any other name

Just as a six-shooter and an AK-47 are technically both guns, all of the above categories of unmanned aerial technology fall under the heading of drone. But with drones becoming a part of everyday life for consumers, everyday missions for the military and everyday operations in industries around the world, we would probably all benefit from a little more specificity. You know, the kind that helps us differentiate between hobby fliers, industry revolutionizing multitools and behemoth unmanned bombers.


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