Tuesday, June 21, 2016


It's a drone nation where everything and everyone is remotely controlled.
                                                                                         ― Bryant McGill

The word Drone refers to a continuous low humming sound, typically by bees or wasps. The name was adopted for old unmanned aircraft because of the motor sounds. (1)

Aviation professionals prefer the term unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The US Defense Department and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted that name in 2005. This emphasizes the importance of other elements of the complete system: ground control stations, data links and additional support equipment.

A decade ago there were only two groups interested in drones: The military, which carried out surveillance missions with unmanned aircraft, and hobbyists who flew radio-controlled planes and helicopters for fun. But applications are growing rapidly: all levels of government are deploying them for surveillance and military purposes; businesses are utilizing them for a variety of different functions; hobbyists continue to find new and diverse uses.

Military Drones

Drones were first used mostly in military applications, preferred for missions that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for humans. After 9/11, followed by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, drones rapidly became an essential tool for the armed forces.

Drones are used when manned flight is considered too risky or difficult, providing round-the-clock eyes in the sky. Each aircraft is capable of staying aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, sending back real-time images of activities on the ground. The first armed drones were built to get Osama bin Laden. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in November 2001, when a Predator targeted a top al Qaeda military commander in Afghanistan.

Drones are relatively inexpensive weapons that have decimated terrorist networks via precise strikes with minimal civilian casualties. Their use helps minimize boots on the ground combat. Large unmanned surveillance drones are usually armed with missiles. Operators in remote locations in the US (Las Vegas, Nevada) can spy on targets thousands of miles away and destroy them with the push of a button. (2)

Opponents of drone strikes emphasize that they kill large numbers of civilians and create more terrorists. They contend that drones violate international law, the sovereignty of other nations, and make the horrors of war appear as innocuous as video games.

Although drone strikes that kill may get all the headlines, most of the time drones are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In 2012, the Air Force had 65,000 – 70,000 people working to process all of the data and footage collected from drones.

The US is far and away the leader of drone technology, accounting for 77% of drone R&D and procurement in the coming decade. Nevertheless, about 50-70 other countries have at least some drone capability. China is escalating its drone program, with several types of systems in development. Iran has also touted its program, including the armed Ambassador of Death drone, proclaiming that its main message is “peace and friendship”.

FAA Regulations

The biggest obstacle to drone usage in business is the FAA, whose regulations tightly restrict drone flights by private companies and government agencies (though not by individual hobbyists). The FAA objective is to allow the safe integration of UAVs into US airspace. (3)

The FAA recognizes three main types of UAS operations: Public (Government), Civil (Business), and Model Aircraft (Hobby or Recreation).

Many are surprised by how progressive the FAA rules are on the business and commercial use of drones. They are in effect in 2016, with some interim exemptions (Section 333) whereby each UAS operation is evaluated individually.

The FAA has issued more than 3,100 commercial drone permits to companies wanting to perform everything from aerial photography to site security to power line inspection. Drone operators are now cleared to fly commercially in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico.
Private (hobby) drones must weigh no more than 55 pounds, must be kept within visual line of sight at all times and must fly below 400 feet, remaining clear of obstacles. They must remain clear of and not interfere with manned aircraft operations. They cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport unless notifying the airport and control tower before flying. Flying drones near people or stadiums is subject to fines for endangering people or other aircraft.

Market Estimates

Market estimates are that the global drone market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 32% between 2016 and 2020 into a $6 billion industry. Precision agricultural drones are expected to have the highest demand with an annual growth-rate of 42%.  Other popular applications include law enforcement, media production, retail, inspection, mapping services, and education. And, there’s the burgeoning hobbyist market.

In terms of geographic growth, the demand for drones is strongest in the Asia-Pacific region, which expects an annual growth rate of 38% in the next several years. The top players are Chinese drone maker DJI Innovations, French company Parrot, and American companies 3D Robotics and PrecisionHawk. (4)

Today, drone use has expanded in commercial, scientific, recreational and many other applications such as policing and surveillance, aerial photography, agriculture and drone racing. Noncombatant drones now vastly outnumber military drones, with estimates of several millions sold annually today. There will continue to be a whole lot of drones flying around.

Hobby Drones

There are toy drones, camera drones and racing drones. Over the 2015 Christmas season more than 1 million hobby drones were sold.

A typical hobby drone is actually quite difficult to fly. Every drone flies slightly differently – some are setup for more agile flying while others might be geared more towards stability. Simply flying around becomes pretty boring; drones with cameras allow remote viewing which can become very interesting.

Some people become outraged by drone intrusions – it’s relatively easy to fly over neighbor’s property, to view or make video recordings from invasive vantage points. The number of drone encroachment disputes is growing, and some intrusive drones have been shot down. The law has not really caught up with these issues.

If you’d like to buy with a hobby drone, Amazon.com is a good place to start, because they have a wide selection of many types of drones, with customer reviews. I fly my hobby drones, with my grandsons, from the balcony of my beach condo in Carlsbad, CA. mostly to take pictures and view the scenery.

Police & Law Enforcement

Drones provide an alternative to traditional aviation for law enforcement agencies. Unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft are much cheaper to own and operate than traditional fixed-wing planes and helicopters. They are equipped with sophisticated navigation and communication equipment that allows for safer and more reliable operations. (5)

US Customs and Border Protection agencies have flown hundreds of domestic drone missions on behalf of other agencies, including several state and local public safety agencies. Drones have patrolled the entire US-Mexico border for more than 5 years. They’ve started helping the FBI, and state police departments to fight crime, and are used for surveillance of targeted areas and helping to carry out sting operations.


Commercially available drones have already been used in war zones for scouting enemy positions, filming propaganda videos, and carrying explosives. But these types of drones are usually slow, easy to shoot down, and can carry only a limited payload. The worry is that, equipped with explosives or chemicals, they could be used virtually anywhere for terrorist attacks on unsuspecting crowds. This demands urgent tactical solutions. (6)


Domino’s Pizza gained attention with a video of a drone delivering a pizza. The idea is that drones could deliver to your home faster, so the pizza would still be hot, fresh and more delicious. One can imagine most pizza chains buying fleet of drones for delivery service before too long. (7)

Drones are a great way for farmers to do aerial surveys of crops. They can see if their irrigation systems are working, how their plants are growing, even see if any of the plants are sick or damaged. The agility of the drone helps a lot and they sure beat walking. Similarly, there are lots of applications for drones in process plants and factories.

When there are a lot of drone flying around, especially some carrying valuable cargo, clearly there's a likelihood of people shooting at them to bring them down. That could be anyone – kids with pellet guns looking for target practice, or others deliberately hijacking. Up to now, businesses that expect to use a lot of drones have not provided answers.


Amazon is known for its futuristic business plans. The company has been experimenting with octocopters – unmanned drones: Amazon Prime Air. The objective is to deliver to customers within 30 minutes of ordering. This will enhance the Prime services they already provide for millions of customers, and increase the overall safety and efficiency. (8)

In April 2016, the FAA granted the company permission to begin testing its drones. People seem to love the idea of Prime Air. Take a look at the 60 Minutes video that got everyone's attention. (9)

My condo balcony, just off the ocean, would be an ideal delivery location for Amazon drones. I sent Jeff Bezos an email a couple of years ago, asking to be on the beta-test list (he always responds, albeit through a surrogate).  You know what? I think I’ll send another email, as a reminder. 


The next generation of Qualcomm Technologies’ drone technology was shown at this year’s 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Their Snapdragon Flight drone platform was shown with Snapdragon Navigator, the navigation software that provides the intelligence to perceive objects in flight paths for safer and more reliable navigation.(10)

Qualcomm’s new Drone Development Platform brings together essential technologies for aerial robotics. This is targeted specifically for the next generation of consumer robots and drones, and is suitable for highly integrated, consumer-friendly UAV applications.

Internet Via Drones

Facebook has completed a full-size version of its solar-powered Aquila drone, which is now being tested in the UK. The huge robotic flier has the same wingspan as a jetliner but is lighter than a car. It runs completely on solar-power and can remain aloft for months at a time. It is designed to circle around in the stratosphere, using lasers to beam Internet access to remote corners of the world. (11)

Google is testing plans to send large floating balloons into the stratosphere to provide Internet access to rural or remote areas, in addition to helping people get online after major disasters. The balloons would float at an altitude higher than air traffic or weather patterns, each providing Internet service to an area 40 km in diameter with speed equivalent to a 3G connection. 

Drone Futures

2016 should bring significant changes to the drone industry. More and more businesses are realizing that you can find incredible value in low-cost drones (<$15,000).

Features, advantages and benefits are increasing rapidly with new sensor technology, tighter integration, and seamless software support. There will be significant growth of commercial drones applications helped by the new FAA regulations and exemptions.

In the next few years, seeing commercial drones flying around will be common.  FAA predicts that drones will spawn a $90 billion industry within a decade. According to the Washington Times, there could be 30,000 drones overhead in the US by 2020. (12)  A sky full of drones will be the new normal. Get used to it.


  1. Unmanned aerial vehicle: https://goo.gl/bvSbQH
  2. America’s Secret Military Empire of Drone Bases: http://goo.gl/gPjj8v
  3. FAA Regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems: https://goo.gl/yTYR4L
  4. TOP 20 Drone Company Ranking Q1 2016: http://goo.gl/PHo2A4
  5. Use of UAVs in law enforcement: https://goo.gl/A1xcqE
  6. Terrorist Drone Attacks Are Not A Matter Of ‘If’ But ‘When’: http://goo.gl/Gp3jAT
  7. Domino's DomiCopter: https://goo.gl/7HpD97
  8. Amazon Reveals New Details About Drone Deliveries: http://goo.gl/VoKHUV
  9. Amazon Prime Air: https://goo.gl/rJnxaM
  10. Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight at CES 2016: https://goo.gl/FrwAa6
  11. Facebook solar-powered drone for Internet access: https://goo.gl/UE8Gpr
  12. Future of Drones: Uncertain, Promising and Pretty Awesome: http://goo.gl/OwjnQY
Jim Pinto
Carlsbad, CA.


  1. .. and the law of unintended consequences is just itching to assert itself.
    What can possibly go wrong when drones and terrorists converge? Drones with cameras? Drones with weapons or explosives? Drones with vials of acid? All buzzing around undetected and unsuspected between large numbers of 'innocent' drones.
    Because not all people are nice people delivering pizza.

    1. Thank you for bringing this up - I had neglected to include this important issue. I have modified the blog, immediately after the section on Police & Law Enforcement - to include the following:

      Commercially available drones have already been used in war zones for scouting enemy positions, filming propaganda videos, and carrying explosives. But these types of drones are usually slow, easy to shoot down, and can carry only a limited payload. The worry is that, equipped with explosives or chemicals, they could be used virtually anywhere for terrorist attacks on unsuspecting crowds. This demands urgent tactical solutions.

  2. Most do not realize that heavily automated drones have been in existence in one form or another for at least the last 30 years.

    What changed is the price and availability. That's it. Now everyone is thinking about them and what they could do with one.

    Until recently, these devices were strictly the domain of military and ham radio use (yes, ham radio enthusiasts have pushed the state of the art here too). Now, with improved software for easier control and ubiquitous navigation capacity, these devices can be easily hacked by anyone with a little time and motivation.

    So the FAA is now busy trying to regulate this genie back in to the bottle. I think it is a futile effort. Those who mean well will observe the regulations, and those whose motivation is less honorable will make life miserable for everyone else.

    The key here is etiquette: Let people know it will be there, and what it's for, and most won't object. Conversely, if land-owners don't know who is running the show, and if it can be brought down with a shotgun, it's probably too close and up to no good.

    1. Jake:

      You are right. The popular interest was generated recently (last 3-5 years) after prices for hobby drones came down.

      Military applications will continue to expand - spy-drones, tactical warfare and lots more. Other usage is split between hobbyists (enthusiasts); and businesses experimenting with drones to expedite package delivery (like Amazon); farming, factories and the like.

      What's left is the "bad guys" - clearly there are many effective war-zone and other nefarious uses.

      One wonders how the markets will continue to develop and mature....