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Drones and the Future of Autonomous Vehicles
Sep 1, 2013

It’s a bird, it’s a plane… but no, it’s not Superman. It’s a drone.

Airborne drones are becoming commonplace, especially in the civilian world. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are aircrafts controlled by a pilot from a remote location on the ground. Drones are increasingly being used, and not just for military purposes. They’re used for agriculture, disaster response, energy production, environmental monitoring, construction, and sports activities. Their use has expanded exponentially in recent years, spurred by technological advancements and easy access to affordable high-tech parts. Drones can fly from several minutes to several days, depending on the technology and the mission, and the cost of having a drone ranges from a few hundred dollars for hobbyists to millions of dollars for military purposes. But as happens with most major technological changes in a society, the increased role of drones is raising privacy and public safety concerns.

Although drones are unmanned vehicles and depend mostly on human intelligence, adaptive control systems and artificial intelligence technologies can allow drones to fly without human intervention. Drones are increasingly becoming autonomous, following a pre-programmed mission, and can even make their own decisions while gathering and sending data back to a ground unit.

Drones are becoming popular for military purposes. They are cheaper than a military aircraft, and flying them remotely means there is no danger for the flight crew. Small drones can get into places where humans cannot, and large drones can fly into war zones to gather surveillance or to take part in military strikes. On the plus side, this will reduce the number of active military personnel in war zones, and reduce casualties. Even the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms is in discussion, leaving a machine to make the final decision about whether to end a civilian life or to destroy vital infrastructure (this decision is also called the ‘signature strike’). [1]. Such a possibility raises serious questions about the ethics of war, privacy, and public safety.

Law enforcement officers are already using drones to detect people illegally crossing their nation’s borders. It is already in use by cities in the US for monitoring criminals, for crime fighting, car chases, executing search-and-rescue missions, firefighting and basic surveillance. People are interested in using camera-equipped drones to patrol their homes during police raids, to collect their own evidence.

Another proposed use is in the protection and inspection of infrastructures, and monitoring power lines, dams, levees, and gas pipelines to reduce the cost and manpower for these dangerous, dull, and costly jobs. If they are intelligently deployed in civilian life, drones can be useful in keeping people out of harm’s way.

Drones can assist in search and rescue missions after tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, especially in places not reachable by, or dangerous to, humans. They can locate survivors and report their location to the ground base [2]. Drones can fly through the dark, pick up heat signatures of bodies using infrared cameras, see through smoke using thermal cameras, record footage using night-vision, and pick up hard-to-hear sounds in dangerous locations. Since they are small, they can easily be transported and deployed in disaster areas, and be up in the air in minutes compared to the longer time requirements required for planes and other rescue vehicles.

An example of this is drones that are already in use monitoring abused wildlife in Kenya and rescuing injured skiers in France [3]. Drones are also extremely useful in monitoring wildfires with minimal cost and little risk of loss of life. NASA is already using drones for monitoring hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is monitoring wildlife in the Arctic, and the US Geological Survey (USGS) is mapping remote terrain and performing environmental research.

Drones are becoming an important part of agricultural production. They can help farmers to check if their fields need watering or fertilizing. In Japan, drones are used for precision agriculture, where drones fly over a field and use multispectral cameras to take pictures of the crop and analyze if it is over-watered or under-watered. This allows farmers to precisely determine the right amount water and pesticide to use, and this helps them decrease costs and increase the crop’s yield.

An interesting application of drones is in clean energy production. Some companies are already exploring the use of drones as autonomous wind turbines that would be flown like mechanical kites [4]. The goal is using drones equipped with wind turbines to fly to higher altitudes, where more consistent and powerful wind is available to be harnessed. These drones are lighter and cheaper than wind turbines, and can adjust themselves to the wind streams to maximize their energy harvesting.

Drones are also used by the construction industry. They provide a cost effective way to check the progress of a construction project, help managers inspect hard to reach locations, take architectural photographs, create 3D scans of a building using infrared cameras, survey more precisely, undertake comprehensive safety inspections, and even replace some of a project’s manual labor. Drones recently demonstrated their ability to assemble, brick by brick, a 1:100 scale model of a skyscraper. Researchers are investigating more potential applications of drone technology in construction sector [5].

The most common use of drones will likely be by hobbyists, who have access to cheap, light, camera-equipped machines that can be controlled by smartphones and tablets. Athletes and extreme sports hobbyists are using drones to capture their activities and tricks during snowboarding or skating outings. Climbers have drones follow them for safety and to record and report their progress to base camps. Drones are increasingly being used by amateur or professional photographers to capture footage. While hobbyists can buy drones ready to fly out of the box, many are going the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) route to create customized, specialized aircrafts. Drone hobbyist websites have more than millions of members, and are growing every day. People exchange their experiences, pictures, and schematics, thus enabling their fellow hobbyists to improve their own drones.

Autonomous drone technology is not limited to the skies. Seaborne drones are already deployed in the ocean to monitor coastlines and passageways for pirates [6]. They communicate with an airborne drone for intelligence and can be picked up by a ship or submarine after the mission is completed. They need to be equipped with capabilities to survive for a long time in cold and corrosive seawater, and to tackle the challenges of underwater communication.

The drone industry is growing fast, and is estimated to have created 70,000 jobs and made an economic impact of $13.6 billion in its first three years. With all the benefits this new technology is contributing to our lives, the domestic use of drones has grown; but so have concerns about their privacy, safety, and regulation. Many people are concerned about their potential for abuse. One of the suggestions for government use of drones is limiting their use to a few purposes determined by the law, and specifically for emergency and public safety. Hobbyists and recreational users do not need any special license to fly a drone, but they are encouraged to follow guidelines outlined for public safety. The guidelines mainly suggest operating drones at a sufficient distance from populated areas, and not over or near private properties or lower than 120 meters in altitude. One of the main concerns about the public use of drones is the ease of weaponizing them; they could conceivably be used to attack private targets.

In science fiction movies, intelligent systems and drones can become self-aware and cause serious problems. It is unlikely that drones will become self-aware anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any safety issues about drones. As seen with most secure computer systems, drone can be hacked by a malicious person or group. These groups can take control of the vehicle, access its video feeds, alter data and information sent to ground control units, and spoof GPS systems to manipulate the drone to land or attack a different target.

When technological breakthroughs are achieved in critical areas, as in drones, a series of solid scientific research needs to be conducted before populating the civilian market with the technological products. Governments and civil societies have an important role in regulating the usage of drone. Some of these steps include requiring a warrant for deployment, limiting the data retention time for images and video feeds, establishing an accountability mechanism, and prohibiting the weaponization of domestic drones.

Acknowledgment: This article was produced by Mergeous [7], an online article and project development service for authors and publishers dedicated to the advancement of technologies in the merging realms of science and spiritual thought.

Halil I. Demir is an internet entrepreneur and freelance writer.


[1] T. Zakaria and M. Hosenball. “U.S. Drone Guidelines Could Reduce -Signature Strikes,” The Huffington Post, May 23, 2013.

[2] H. Kelly. “Drones: The future of disaster response,” CNN, May 23, 2013.

[3] A. Levy and M. Milian. “Future of Drones: Aerial Assassins or Helpful Hovercrafts?” Bloomberg, May 15, 2013.

[4] K. D. Atherton, “Google Bets $10.7 Million On Drone Intelligence,” Popular Science Magazine, May 16, 2013.

[5] R. Von Ins, “Rise of the Drones,” Georgia Institute of Technology, January 23, 2013.

[6] J. Emspak, “Schools of Sleeper Drones Could Swim Future Seas,” Discovery News, January 25, 2013.

[7] Mergeous, Online article and project development service,