Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Introduction to Flying Robots and Drones

25 November 2021
Unmanned aerial drone or flying robot
Mark Fairchild
Freelance Technical Copywriter
,
Fairchild Copywriting

Guide to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as flying robots or drones. Learn what they're used for, their pros and cons, and where to source them.

Aerial drones have gone from a novelty to being commonplace. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used in a variety of commercial applications. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, over 340,000 commercial drones are registered in the United States, with over 250,000 remote pilots certified. According to Grand View Research, the global commercial drone market was valued at US $ 13.44 billion in 2020.  The annual growth rate is projected at a remarkable 57.5% from 2021 to 2028. 

Drones can be categorized as military, commercial, and personal. In this article, we focus on commercial applications.

We explore drones through the following topics:

  • Law Enforcement and Public Safety
  • Inspection
  • Most Advanced Features
  • Safety, Licensing, Training
  • How to Source Commercial Aerial Drones

Law Enforcement and Public Safety

A law enforcement officer standing behind an aerial drone.  The drone is on the ground on an orange landing pad on a city street with by-passers in the background.


Aerial drones are increasingly used by law enforcement agencies worldwide.  In some cases, the drone is the first responder to an emergency call. The UAV relays information back to the remote pilot. The pilot collaborates with colleagues, and they decide whether and how to deploy officers. 

The technology is mature, and some vendors offer packages specially configured for law enforcement and public safety. 

Some of the features available include:

  • Thermal imaging – used in search and rescue and fugitive tracking
  • Automatic following - tap on a live video feed featuring a person, vehicle, or other objects, and the drone automatically follows the specified object. The drone uses image recognition to “lock onto” the target. 
  • Loudspeaker – for making announcements in hostage negotiation situations or crowd control
  • Microphone – for surveillance - listening to conversations
  • Spotlight – used in night-time situations
  • Glass breaching – the drone is equipped with special battering rams that can shatter the glass of a building or an automobile
  • Fleet management – sophisticated, cloud-based software allows for data from multiple drones to be integrated onto a single map and have a real-time video feed made available to law enforcement agents at multiple locations

Law enforcement drone pilots must be trained and certified.  Some vendors offer training programs. 

As technology advances, drones are developing more autonomous capabilities.  For example, a law enforcement agency can now purchase a drone to enter a building and autonomously navigate its way throughout without operator intervention.  

The use of law enforcement drones causes privacy concerns, and lawmakers are responding.  Some national security concerns have also been raised. One question is whether a drone maker could embed malicious software that would include “back door” access to the information gathered by the drone. And there are always safety considerations and regulations to be observed. 

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun issuing exemptions that allow law enforcement agencies to operate drones Beyond a Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS).  Each country will naturally have its own regulations. 

Request offers for aerial drones for law enforcement and public safety.

Inspection Drones

An aerial drone hovers over a building under construction. A man in a hard hard with a drone controller is on the ground looking up at the drone.


Industrial and commercial organizations are turning to drones to help with inspections because of their many advantages. An operator remotely pilots most inspection drones, and the drone has a limited amount of autonomy. 

Here are some of the features that may be desirable for an inspection drone:

  • Automatic altitude control - the pilot can maneuver the drone laterally without having to worry about altitude control. 
  • Return Home autonomously – once the mission is completed, one command sends the drone back to its original location.
  • Sense and Avoid capability - enables the drone to avoid hitting something, even if it means overriding the operator’s commands.   
  • Thermal Imaging – useful in a variety of applications, from real estate to chemical plants. 

A variety of vendors specialize in certain kinds of inspections. Below are some of the most common types of inspection drones.

Agriculture

The market for agricultural inspection drones is well-established, and there are a variety of vendors from which to choose. Aerial images of crops and cropland yield data on soil and field health and give information on the soundness of crops.  

The types of sensors will determine the quality of data you can obtain. A high-resolution picture taken from the air can reveal differences in plant growth that are not easy to detect from the ground. Thermal cameras can help measure the health of crops – plants that are dead or under stress will be warmer than healthy plants. LiDAR measures distance precisely and can be used to map elevation and distances accurately. Image recognition software and special ear tags for animals are available. These features enable UAVs to monitor livestock. Multispectral cameras can detect diseases and nutrient deficiencies. 

Request offers for agricultural inspection drones from suppliers.

Roofing

Roofing inspectors can save themselves the time and danger of climbing up on the roof. Pay special attention to the resolution of the camera and the quality of the flight controlling device.  Auto takeoff is a feature that makes getting in the air easier. You’ll want to make sure you get image stabilization because it makes a massive difference in the quality of the captured video.  The ability of a drone to hover in one place or maintain a specific altitude automatically are valuable features. There are specialized roof inspection apps available for controlling the drone and downloading the video. The apps can even help write job estimates and proposals.

Request offers for roofing inspection drones from suppliers.

Real Estate

One of the most critical steps in selling real estate is taking effective pictures. The latest weapon in real estate marketing is drone photography. With aerial drones, marketers can take breathtaking aerial shots. And, specialized drones for flying inside can create virtual tours.  Drones for interiors have contained rotors and won’t cause or sustain damage if they bump into something. Sense and avoid capability is beneficial for drones that operate indoors.  

Drones are used to inspect high-rise buildings, looking for the pooling of water and moisture penetration. Early detection of moisture problems can make a massive difference in the cost of remediation. Air leakage can also be detected, which is essential for detecting cooling and heating problems. 

Some vendors specialize in selling drones for real estate inspection - other vendors offer a service to carry out such checks. 

Request offers for real estate inspection drones from suppliers.

Construction

Getting a view from the air of construction sites has innumerable advantages. Early detection of variation from the plan can reduce costs substantially. Spotting potentially hazardous work conditions can save lives. 

Some vendors specialize in helping construction companies manage their drones. From certifying drone pilots to centralizing the data collection, vendors can assist construction organizations in managing their drone programs. 

Request offers for construction drones from suppliers.

Infrastructure

Bridges, dams, powerlines, and transmission towers should be periodically inspected for damage due to wear and tear. Chemical plants need to check high smokestacks and large tanks. Without drones, such inspection is usually dangerous, difficult, costly, or impractical.  With drones, these challenges are a thing of the past. 

Vendors offer special packages for such inspections. As an example of the customized features available, specialized drones are designed to operate in the vicinity of high electromagnetic fields. Another optional feature is a powerful optical zoom capability for the drones’ camera(s).  Equipped with such optics, the UAV can maintain a safe distance and still detect problems.

Request offers for infrastructure inspection drones from suppliers.

Limitations

One significant possible downside to using aerial drones for inspection is the potential for hacking.  If a hacker could exploit a vulnerability in the communications with the drone, it could steal data without the original owner being aware.  Such data could be used for nefarious purposes. 

Weather is a consideration, because lightweight drones can’t handle significant winds much less lightning.  Birds of prey have been known to attack drones.  The attack could damage the drone to the point it would crash, causing safety concerns.  Safety is always important.  Equipment malfunction cannot be entirely eliminated.  Hazards like telephone lines are hard to see and could cause a crash.

Most Advanced Features

The most sophisticated drones feature a mission-assignment level of autonomy. You describe a route for them, and they fly it on their own. Such UAVs have “sense and avoid” capabilities that enable them to prevent collisions. This high degree of autonomy is beneficial when a specific, predictable task must be performed on a scheduled basis. Construction site assessment is a good example.

As the technological sophistication of drones increases, more and more autonomous features will no doubt be added. 

Safety, Licensing, Training

In every country, there are regulations governing airspace. Before launching a drone program, you need to become familiar with those rules. Some vendors can help with this and also assist with gaining approval for your drone program. 

Drone operators will need to be trained and licensed. 

Here’s a quick checklist of the critical considerations.

  • How much time aloft do you need?  
  • What are your imaging requirements - resolution of the camera(s)
  • Other sensors - thermal imaging, etc.?
  • How much autonomy do you need?
  • Will you be operating in an area that might affect other air travel?
  • Do you need BVLOS capability?  (Beyond Visual Line of Sight).  

How to Source Commercial Aerial Drones

HowToRobot is a global platform helping companies to succeed with automation. We have a worldwide directory of over 16,000 robotics companies.  Using our guide, you can find the type of aerial drone you need, ideally suited for your application.  

If you are looking for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and are unsure exactly what you want, you can get tailored proposals from various suppliers.  Simply describe your project and start receiving answers.

You can get quotes and receive product information if you know the kind of flying robot you want. You will receive product information and pricing from multiple vendors.  

Impartial HowToRobot experts can help you navigate through the process. Click here to set up a consultation with an expert advisor.