Drones - Up, up and away

The air above our heads could soon become a lot more crowded. Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more and more popular with businesses, the military and even the general public all using these devices. By Dr Chris Marker.

Drones are used for purposes that are dangerous, dirty, or dull for normal manned aircraft, cost and size are also factors when using drones. Drones come in many shapes and sizes, those used by the military resemble conventional aircraft while smaller scale drones are typically quadcopters. A quadcopter is a multirotor helicopter that is lifted and propelled by four rotors. The control of a quadcopters motion is achieved by altering the rotation rate of one or more of its rotor discs, thereby changing its torque load and thrust/lift characteristics. With their small size and agile maneuverability, these quadcopters can be flown indoors as well as outdoors.

A drone’s flight is controlled either remotely by a pilot or autonomously by on-board computers. Advances in autonomy technology have allowed autonomous drones to act more like humans lessening the need for human intervention. Autonomy technology includes the use of sensor fusion, path planning trajectory generation and trajectory regulation.

Some of the ways that drones are being used in the world today include:


The military has so far been the driving force in the technological development of drones. Military drones are typically controlled via satellites by pilots who can be miles away. They are most useful in areas where the enemy does not have the firepower to shoot them down. The roles performed by these drones includeintelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strikes. The Predator and the Reaper are two common types of drone currently being used by the US military.


Businesses have been waking up to the potential use of drones. Companies such as Amazon, Google and DHL have been testing drones for the rapid delivery of lightweight commercial products. Drones could be used by industry to investigate the state of pipelines, buildings, cables and other hard to reach places without the need for costly scaffolding or other inspection hardware. Drones can also perform geophysical surveys which are a vital area for the oil, gas and mineral industries.


Small scale drones can be used to take video of people surfing, climbing, skiing etc. Drones unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show included one specifically designed to take aerial selfies and one designed as an “office toy”. As drones come down in price and they become easier to use there will be an increase in use by the general public. Imagine having a drone take an aerial video of your wedding day!

The increasing use of drones around the world has led to moral questions being raised, safety fears and legal/regulation issues. The legal/regulation issues around the world are complicated. For instance in the US the Federal Aviation Administration gives licenses to commercial/public unmanned aerial systemon a case-by-case basis.

These issues, together with short battery life problems, have perhaps contributed to the uptake of drone technology so far being relatively slow amongst both the public and business. With drones increasingly becoming a hot technology it is likely that this situation will not continue for much longer and the regulators may be left struggling to catch up as drones fly up and away.

Inspec has many control terms and classifications which relate to the topic of drones and their uses:


Control terms

aerospace control

autonomous aerial vehicles

gas industry

geophysical prospecting




military aircraft

mineral processing industry

path planning

petroleum industry

sensor fusion



trajectory control



a9385 Instrumentation and techniques for geophysical, hydrospheric and lower atmosphere research

b0170L Inspection and quality control

b6140 Signal processing and detection

b7710 Geophysical techniques and equipment

b7910D Sensors and transducers (military and defence)

b7950C Optical systems (military and defence)

c1230 Artificial intelligence

c1250 Pattern recognition

c3120C Spatial variables control

c3240 Transducers and sensing devices

c3360L Aerospace control

c3375 Military control systems

c3390C Mobile robots

c3390T Telerobotics

c5260A Sensor fusion

c7420 Control engineering computing

c7460 Aerospace engineering computing

e0270 Legal aspects

e1550A Robotics

e1610 Inspection and quality control

e1780 Products and commodities

e2220 Vehicle mechanics

e3020 Mining, oil drilling and natural gas industries

e3040 Public utilities

e3624 Fuel processing industry

e3646 Defence industry

e3650C Aerospace industry