Drones: well-identified flying objects Drones: well-identified flying objects

Drones: well-identified flying objects

What flies above our heads?

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Until a few years ago, when talking about robots we immediately imagined a state-of-the-art research lab full of scientists. But for some years now robots have not only become widespread in the industrial field but also in households, where so-called service robots (e.g. vacuum-cleaner robots and grass-cutter robots) can be found.

Still within the field of robots, another very popular word in recent times is“drone, a radio-controlled flying object that everyone is talking about.  However only a few of us,  know its real potential and limits.

Drones were initially only used for taking aerial video footage  and  they  gained enormous visibility when used in advertising campaigns – for example, the viral campaign of Amazon Prime Air. These aircraft (which are Remotely Piloted Aircraft equipped with fly-by-wire technology that simplifies the flight, assisting the pilot by translating its commands into actual input to control the aircraft) can be widely applied to many civil activities.

The ability to operate regardless of the conformation of the land also allows them to be deployed in emergency situations (floods, earthquakes and other disasters).  Being able to cover a large stretch of land from above means that they can be used for monitoring and inspection tasks (mapping the land and scanning buildings and infrastructures), whereas their great freedom of movement, especially outdoors, enables them to carry a video camera or measuring instruments in places that are otherwise inaccessible or hard to reach.

Hence, many service scenarios can be imagined in contexts such as Smart Cities, where the number and spread of connected devices is increasing and drones are also becoming “objects” integrated into the Internet of Things. This means that the can be monitored via connectivity also providing the correct level of safety, available to air navigation services.

It is no coincidence that drones have also become protagonists of Expo 2015: to control the progress of works at the Digital Smart City site, a drone has been “appointed” to regularly fly over the area and record the progress being made.

It is a fact that this enormous universe of devices is gathering an increasing number of followers not only on a global scale but also in Italy: in a few days, the first exhibition for the sector will be inaugurated at Milano Dronitaly to raise awareness of the vast and varied world of civilian drones.

Meanwhile, here is a brief insight to clarify and introduce the subject to those who are less expert.

Drones: a version for everyone

Everyone will have seen images taken from above during concerts and exhibitions or on TV. In the past, a helicopter with a pilot and a team equipped with video cameras were required to fly over the area “of interest”, whereas now only a drone is required.

A drone is a remotely piloted aircraft, namely, an unmanned aerial vehicle with an onboard computerised control system that helps the pilot to control it at a distance.

Initially used for military purposes, they have entered the civilian field also thanks to the availability on the market of many tutorials for building them at home and to the presence of products that can be controlled by an app installed on a PC or smartphone.

But how are drones made?

To better understand what they are, we can divide drones into 4 categories:

  • Rotating wing: these drones use technology similar to that of helicopters but instead of having a main rotor and a tail rotor, they have pairs of counter-rotating rotors to achieve the same stability in flight without requiring a tail rotor. Drones with four rotors are called quadcopters, however, some also have 6 or 8 rotors. 

Characteristics: vertical take off and landing, ability to hover and fly in all directions.

  • Stationary wing: they are similar to model aeroplanes, the only difference is the control station that is not manual but created with an app.

Characteristics: they need a wide space for landing. When the same weight as rotating wing drones, they can carry heavier weights and have greater autonomy.

  • Airships: their shape and characteristics are identical to normal airships, or aircraft lighter than air, but with their reduced dimensions and low weight they can be used in enclosed and crowded spaces or to fly over people.

Characteristics: low cruising speed and a long working life.

  • Flap wing: they are inspired by nature and are similar to the ornithopters studied by Renaissance scientists.

Characteristics: they rise from the ground independently, exploiting air currents, hovering and landing against the wind. 
The most renowned example is the SmartBird, a seagull robot made in 2012 by Festo. It was based on a study of wings, very similar to that of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Pros …and cons

Drones can be used for taking high-quality aerial images, for monitoring or for  “simple” stunts. The development of real robotic applications is hampered, however, by the disadvantages of using them, for example:

  • Navigation: it is essentially possible to pilot a drone when visible (this means that the aircraft cannot fly too far from the pilot), since the onboard optics have a limited viewing angle that does not allow the visibility of any eventual obstacles at the sides.
  • Loading capacity: to counter costs, the engines used do not allow weights greater than the total weight of the drone itself to be lifted.

These limitations can be easily overcome by using more expensive materials, not suitable for the mass market but used by those who build drones for professional uses.

Limitations exist, however, that cannot be overcome: the autonomy of the batteries used for the flight (no longer than one hour) and the regulations, another aspect not to be underestimated.

Regardless of these aspects, drones have a potential that would also be of great use in emergencies for monitoring and quantifying disasters, without endangering human lives.

Regulations

Regulations are a sensitive issue: many countries do not yet have specific regulations.

In Italy, however, all flying objects are subject to safety regulations and this obviously also applies to drones. Since drones are so new to the scene of flying objects, related regulations are not yet flexible enough and this makes testing outside labs difficult. In Italy, in mid-December 2013, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) issued “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” Regulations (that came into force in April 2014), which establish the requirements to be met for the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), namely, the drone itself and the components required for remote control.

The aim of the regulations is not to hinder the development and use of drones, but, on the contrary, to prevent any abuse that might violate the privacy of citizens or make drones hazardous. In this case, however, Italy has shown that it is a step ahead compared to the rest of the world.