PE articles

Flight club: The drone's transformation from expensive toy to powerful tool

Amit Katwala

(Credit: Sky Futures)
(Credit: Sky Futures)

On Saturday 26 March 2016, a 28-year-old American called Harrison Fast went missing in the Swiss Alps.

He was in a group of ‘speed flyers,’ who glide with special parachutes close to the ground. While exploring the area around the Jungfrau mountain, Fast suddenly vanished in bad weather. 

His family flew in from Colorado and raised thousands of dollars through crowdfunding websites to launch a massive search effort. Local mountain guides gave assistance, and the relatives hired a helicopter to comb the slopes. They also purchased 10 remotely-controlled drones – small consumer models built around the popular quadcopter design. Four horizontal propellers allow the drone to take off quickly and make sharp turns.

These drones have the look and feel of expensive toys. According to research firm Gartner, more than 2.2 million units were sold in 2016, a 60% increase from the year before. And they are not just gimmicks. As drones get cheaper, lighter and more powerful, new uses for them are springing up: from monitoring offshore oil fields to putting out wildfires and examining jetliners for potential faults.

Steve Wright, a lecturer in avionics at the University of the West of England in Bristol, likens today’s drones to century-old rickety biplanes. “Here we are in 2017, and we’re actually in 1917 in terms of drone technology,” he says. “This is just the start of a most phenomenal journey.”

For the Fast family, the high-definition cameras on their fleet of drones gave them the ability to search the narrow cracks and crevices of the mountain and go to areas where humans and helicopters couldn’t. But they still needed someone to fly them. 

That’s how Jason Woodcock ended up on a flight from London to Geneva, wondering whether his delicate drones would cope with the cold. Woodcock is tall and broad-shouldered, with a booming voice that hints at his military background. He is the managing director of UAS Flight Ops, a British company with operations in Birmingham, Manchester, London and Exeter that provides expert drone pilots for hire – for everything from military operations to filming. The firm is currently working on Hunted, the Channel 4 TV series where contestants try to hide out for as long as possible to win a cash prize. But it was the firm’s piloting expertise that the Fast family wanted to tap into. 

“Drones had never been used in that scenario before,” says Woodcock, who had spotted a message on Facebook asking for help with the search for Fast and offered his company’s services free of charge. “We got permission from the local government to use them.”

Flying toolbox

Search and rescue (which sadly failed in Fast's case) is not the only application for drones. Companies are combining drone technology with other tools to collect data and improve productivity. They’re being used to create aerial maps of farmers’ fields for planning, and to survey remote oil fields. BP was one of the first companies authorised to use drones for commercial purposes in the US. Its ultra-light radio-controlled drone Puma has a fixed-wing structure and can stay airborne for more than three hours, remaining stable in winds of up to 48km/h. Besides checking pipelines for leaks, the machines also map regions for exploration.

Propeller-based drones can’t fly for as long, but they’re smaller and more manoeuvrable, able to navigate in tight spaces. BP is now investigating their potential use inside tanks and oil vessels. 

In Oklahoma, General Electric is using a helicopter drone dubbed Raven to detect methane leaks from oil and gas wells. The latest test model, launched last November, can fly for 40 minutes with six rechargeable batteries. It carries a laser-
based sensor that can stream live data about methane to a worker on the ground. 

Then there is the French company Parrot, which recently revealed technology able to create a 3D model of a building in a matter of minutes. A drone simply flies around it taking photos, and automatically stitches the resulting images together. The same technology can be used to quickly capture scenes that need to be pondered over in detail later, such as road accidents. 

Sky Futures, founded in 2010 by a group of British Army veterans, was the sixth company in the UK to get a license for commercial drone operations. It started off providing drone inspection services for oil rigs, nuclear companies, wind farms and other industrial applications, but now focuses on training companies to operate drones themselves. 

At a 350-acre site in Oxfordshire, the company assembled an incredible range of structures including a motorway gantry, an oil rig and a ship, for training engineers on using drones for inspection work. “For us, it’s about making the inspection process much faster and more valuable,” says chief operations officer and co-found Chris Blackford. “It’s 85% faster and 85% more cost effective.”

Blackford believes that autonomous systems will gradually replace human pilots. “In the next 18 months, we’ll reach a level of automation where the inspection engineer will train the drone to fly around the structure in a specific way, and then he’ll leave the drone to fly itself.” Eventually, drones will automatically carry out surveys on a daily or weekly basis. They could even monitor the weather and automatically check for storm damage.

“All the engineers will do is log onto the cloud and say ‘show me the condition of those structures you’ve inspected,’” says Blackford.

Drones were used by firefighters in the recent Grenfell Tower fire to help monitor damage and search for potential survivors by using thermal imaging to look for body heat through the walls. “After a fire, a building can sometimes be too dangerous,” said Adam Green, station manager at Kent Fire and Rescue Service which provided the drones for Grenfell, in an interview in a local paper last year. “But for investigation work, you might be able to see where it started from the burn pattern from the air.” 

(Credit: DroneShield)

Aerial arms race

But drones are not just being used to fight fires and inspect oil rigs. Drones can also be deadly weapons – and there’s an arms race developing in the skies.

The DJI Spark costs just £449. It’s one of a number of consumer drones that have been spotted on frontlines in areas such as the Middle East and Ukraine. Groups such as ISIS are increasingly using drones equipped with grenades or improvised explosives. So what can be done to tackle these flying robots that can be a source of danger, or simply nuisance? 

DroneGun, made by DroneShield, is designed to safely shoot dangerous or disruptive drones out of the sky. It looks like an alien stun-gun from a video game. It’s a metre long, matt black, and shaped like a rifle – with a long antenna where the barrel would be. 

“It jams the connection between the drone and controller,” says DroneShield’s chief executive Oleg Vornik. “When the drone’s communication cuts out, it usually responds by coming down in a controlled manner. Or it goes back where it came from so you can figure out where the pilot is, and take measures against them.”

Some companies, including Dedrone and Diametrex, have developed systems that sniff out the wireless signal of drones so they can be dealt with. Others, including the South Korean military, are developing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) defences that disable the electronics of threatening drones. 

Some drone manufacturers are already starting to build redundancy into their machines to improve reliability, which would counteract EMP-based defence systems. Strategies such as signal jamming and EMPs won’t work for long, though, says Wright. 

Even aluminium foil could create a defensive shield for the drone. “It wouldn’t be all that difficult to start hardening these systems,” he says. “It’s the next step in the arms race.”

And as drones get smarter, it’s getting harder to stop them. Off-the-shelf models have the processing power of a 10-year-old mobile phone; new models are more powerful. They can run autonomously, avoiding obstacles while hitting a series of GPS waypoints. This means there’s no need for a signal from a pilot on the ground, so there’s nothing to jam. 

(Credit: Getty Images)

Drone or eagle?

Drone makers can take steps to limit them being used for malice. Consumer drones now come with pre-programmed ‘no-fly zones’ over areas such as airports and military bases, using GPS to prevent them from flying there. DJI recently added large areas of Syria and Iraq to its list of no-fly zones to thwart ISIS.

Another way of taking down drones is with the help of… eagles. The French air force and the Dutch police are among those training golden eagles to attack drones in mid-air. But Wright isn’t buying it, and is developing a drone that can go from 0 to 60 in less than a second. “Even a magnificent golden eagle isn’t going to be able to outrun us,” he says.

As the arms race continues, the solution is likely to involve a combination of technologies. The next step could be drones with their own jamming guns on boardIn the future, those drones might not be piloted by humans. Instead, they might have enough on-board intelligence to perform their own evasive manoeuvres. 

“All we’ve got to do is get close enough to take it out,” says Wright. “The next thing you know, you’re back to First World War dogfights.”


PE Magazine

PE app

  • Industry features and content
  • Engineering and Institution news
  • News and features exclusive to app users

Download the PE app

PE newsletter

A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won't miss anything

Subscribe to the PE newsletter

Opt into your industry sector newsletter

Related articles