Into the playground of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

"The drones" "The predators" "The reapers".

“The drones” “The predators” “The reapers”.

The dominance of different nations with the new found weapons has been the case since the First World War. As a matter of fact, it has been the case with any historic tribe. But today, the world cries over the use of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and screams a need for stringent policies governing the use of these autonomous flying machines for combat purposes. When there are absence of rules, things tend to slip away but calling for an indiscriminate cut on the use of UAVs by looking at only one side of the coin is like losing faith in technology and development that has propelled us so far ahead that we can hardly comprehend the world today.

Switching gears, I would love to go on and on about these little flying wonders.  Let me get started with an eye opener. For the masses, UAVs came out of the blue. In the popular imagination, they started out as exotic reconnaissance aircraft that have grown in numbers and sophistication until they’ve turned into experimental combat aircraft taking off from aircraft carriers. In fact, UAVs have their deep roots outside the military. Hobbyists, scientists and aircraft engineers have made their contributions. Personally this issue interests me as I spent considerable time during my under-graduation researching in the related fields.

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Well, I wouldn’t completely ignore the questions. I know privacy issues need to be addressed, questions on circumstances that necessitate the deployment of drones answered, effectiveness issues, autonomy and potential of these flying machines sorted out but these are still the early days. Let men play with the toys, surely there will be answers round the corner. But in the quest for answers, we sometimes do forget the fact that this technology has come a long way since the first autonomous flight took place. Whether tiny quadcopters that fly within a few hundred meters of their operator or huge winged aircrafts piloted via satellites thousands of miles by means of a joystick, UAVs are taking flight each hour setting out to complete the task at hand.

Yeah, of late there has been a lot of uproar over the deployment of drones for use in combat purpose. In this process, somehow I am of the opinion that we are overlooking the huge spectrum of opportunities and applications that a mechanized flying vehicle can provide. It’s just not the matter of taking the pilot out of the flying machine, but also tapping into the immense advantages such a process offers.

As a member of the general public, we tend to think of a pilot as being indispensable for a plane, but in many respects, he’s a liability. He takes up space, needs somewhere to sit, air to breathe, the right temperature and pressure, and needs readouts and controls to operate the aircraft- all of which adds up to extra space, weight and power. Worse, he is rather fragile. Acceleration at five times the force of gravity or “Gs” can render an unprotected pilot unconscious. Even two Gs can cause a blackout if it’s in such a direction that it causes the blood to rush to the head. Proper seating and special inflatable trousers could help prevent this and keep the blood from pooling in the feet while making a fast bank but there are limitations and those are reflected in the performance of the aircraft.

Now, just glimpsing at a situation where a pilot is eliminated, a whole new array of opportunities arises. There’s no more need for life support, seats, control systems, readouts or even something as simple as a latch that opens from the inside. The corresponding space, weight and power thus saved. This allows the UAV to be much smaller and lighter, be so tiny that it rivals a hummingbird, remain in the air as long as the fuel allows it to, and go where it would be impossible or far too dangerous to send a manned mission.

Apart from the general war-time and peacekeeping mission applications of the UAVs as projected by the media, UAVs could be used for large scale police work. An eye in the sky could be used for general law enforcement, border control, sea lane monitoring, traffic control, crime scene photography, searching for missing persons, countering piracy and combating drug trafficking.

Heading towards other applications, UAVs in Japan have been helping farmers in seeding and crop dusting. Their small size and ability to fly at very low altitudes help perform what is known as the precision agriculture. Equipped with sensors and with the help of infrared imaging, UAVs, monitor livestock and crops, detect diseases, determine plant ripeness and schedule harvesting and prevent infestation of pests.

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Another major use being in the fields of meteorology swarms of small UAVs take up the dangerous task of storm chasing and take measurements in situations where using conventionally piloted aircraft isn’t feasible. A swarm can thereby coordinate among itself in complete autonomy and increase the efficiency compared to a single UAV. Interesting prospect has always been the use of drones for surveying landscape, wildlife, coastal shores, and deep seas, search terrains for signs of oil, gas or minerals or even inspections of structures. UAVs have in the past proven an excellent platform for cartography and geophysical and photometric surveying, allowing an aerial perspective to any piece of land that is hardly accessible by conventional flight.

Among the array of humanitarian roles that UAVs have been used for are relief during natural calamities. Be it dropping small payloads to stranded survivors or locating them for rescue teams, they have played their roles effectively. For instance when the recent floods ravaged the state of Uttarakhand in India, the small robot planes were largely helpful in locating marooned people and survivors. They have also been used for firefighting in case of devastating forest fires in Greece and have are being considered for scouting ahead of merchant navy ships to avert threats of piracy.

This might just be the tip of iceberg of all applications that UAVs offer. Sincerely, I do hope by tapping into the expanse of advantages and answering the questions that seek attention, UAVs have a long way to go in this chaos of invention where technology is whizzing off in a million new directions.

Here is a small link that shows UAVs perform James Bond soundtrack autonomously, developed by Pennsylvania university.

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