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April 13, 2012 AT 10:49 am

What Makes a Drone, a Drone?

(Image via FastCompany)

So, what exactly constitutes a drone? An interesting question that we’re going to need to a clear answer to soon, as civilian use of drones takes off (npi) and the hobby/industry begins to face inevitable regulation. via SciAm:

At a time when drone aircraft have become a daily feature of the news and are about to proliferate in U.S. airspace, it’s a good idea to take a step back and examine a very basic and very important question: What, exactly, is a drone?

The answer turns out to be more complex than might be expected. Strictly speaking, a drone is an unmanned aircraft that can fly autonomously—that is, without a human in control. But even that seemingly simple definition quickly runs up against the nuances of how contemporary unmanned aircraft are flown.

For example, consider an aircraft that is under the control of a remote pilot for most but not all of a mission. If the pilot switches to a GPS-guided autopilot mode for a few minutes, does the aircraft become a “drone” for that subset of its flight, and then lose that designation once the autopilot is switched off? Or does the presence of the GPS autopilot, regardless of how much it is actually used, make it a drone?

(Even when autonomous flight does occur, the human element is still very much present but simply shifted in time. Designing systems and methods to successfully allow a computer to control an aircraft is a high art in and of itself. Autonomous flight is made possible by the tremendous amount of human ingenuity invested well in advance of an actual flight.)

Many people (the author included) have used “drone” to describe any aircraft without an on-board pilot. But that is an oversimplification that masks the incredible range in shapes, sizes and capabilities that characterize today’s unmanned aircraft. And it can fail to fully recognize the high levels of skill involved in piloting—whether or not the pilot is actually in the plane.

More at Scientific American.


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