As the year draws to a close and we look back on 2014 we can see a year that marked a huge amount of change and development in the world of unmanned aviation. By far the most obvious difference to this time last year is the way in which multirotor craft, and in particular quadcopters, have become popular and newsworthy. The original DJI Phantom was released in January 2013 and is still a strong seller as its price remains affordable for many hobbyists, but this Christmas sees an unprecedented amount of sales and many thousands of people are going to be opening a box on Christmas morning containing either a Phantom or some other remotely controlled multirotor.
As well as DJI Innovations, manufacturers like Hubsan, 3D Robotics, Parrot, and many others have each staked a claim in the rapidly expanding UAV territory. For some the target market is indoor and outdoor hobby flying, while others are researching and developing UAS for the commercial arena. Aerial drones are most widely known for their use in aerial photography, but the many uses in surveying, agriculture, for thermal imagery, marine exploration, wildlife monitoring among others have proven that it is the commercial world in which there is the greatest scope and benefits. If there’s a dull, dirty, or dangerous task that could be done by a drone then there’s a team developing a UAV for the job, if it’s not already on the market.
History has shown us how new technology is often met with suspicion and concerns over safety and privacy. “It’ll never catch on” is one expression of skepticism. “Criminals and terrorists will use this against us” is another, and if I had a pound for every time I’d read or heard something along the lines of, “Yes, but I don’t want one of these things spying on me….” then I’d probably be able to afford a DJI Inspire 1 and still have change. Anything new and unfamiliar can provoke such reactions and you only have to reflect on the arrival of mobile phones and the internet to see examples of how it takes time for new technology to develop and for the general population to adapt to it. The process seems to follow a familiar pattern, but eventually not only are these things accepted, but we make use of the advantages it brings and build businesses for which it becomes an essential tool or medium. We do so in the full and certain knowledge that the technology can be used against us because we know it does more good than harm. In short, we learn to live with the risks while developing ways to reduce them.
However, the stories that are making the news are those that involve alleged near misses between drones and conventional manned aircraft. The idea that a quadcopter might get sucked in the engine of a airliner on final approach at Heathrow is one that is guaranteed to keep journalists busy for a while yet. No one doubts that there are risks, but the debate is about the scale of these risks and the odds of any disasters being caused by UAV of any type. One way of mitigating the risks is education, and the contents of the CAA’s CAP 1202 leaflet should be memorised by anyone flying a UAV of any size. Putting a copy of this leaflet into every box containing a quadcopter sold in the UK would be both an easy and effective way of reminding owners of their responsibilities.
During 2015 the hobby and commercial use of drones will continue to increase, and if we extrapolate the progress so far then it’s likely that there will be many more licensed operators and enthusiastic amateurs. Drones, combined with advances in robotics, are likely to continue to make headlines. Let’s hope the media starts reporting on the many benefits and advantages instead of continuing with the all too predictable and scaremongering bylines. The use of UAV in monitoring wildlife and surveying crops are two of many examples of how we may not only recognise their benefits, but also come to rely on them for essential information about the environment and the food supplies needed for an ever increasing global population.