Up into the unknown: drones

The term drone is born in the military field and technically refers to UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) because the control of enemy territory is remote and not managed directly by an on-board pilot but by ground instruments.

Luca Silva and Andrea Dovichi (studiowasabi.com)

We will not be speaking about their military use here but rather of their “amateur” and professional use in civil environments.
But let’s take a small step back first.
Perhaps not everybody knows that thanks to contamination of technological ideas, everything began a few years ago (around 2005) with the development of open hardware, in particular with the invention by the brilliant Italian engineer Massimo Banzi, the “father” of ARDUINO.
This multi-functional programmable board made it possible to begin experimenting in the field of model aircraft (which had been suffering from a technological stand-still for a few years). There were model aircrafts that flew using boards but featuring a rather archaic control system; the propulsion system was powered mainly by fuel and was totally inefficient.In that period, a famous Japanese videogame company, Nintendo, began developing specific sensors to enhance the experience of play (thanks to accelerometers and position sensors). Nintendo Wii was born.


AT THIS POINT, SOME MODEL AIRCRAFT ENTHUSIASTS began dismantling the components of the Wii and putting them together with ARDUINO (like true hackers who use mixed techniques to experiment beyond the limits of the system), and created the first radio-controlled, innovatively managed drones (by introducing special LiPO batteries and some even exploited the new brushless motors for enhanced management and greater control). Later, this pioneering project in engineering and experimentation gave birth to the first quadricopter (i.e., a 4-motor multicopter), developed by the French production company Parrot, with the introduction of the A.R. Drone, and mass produced.


THIS DRONE WAS NOT ONLY CONTROLLABLE THROUGH IPHONE AND IPAD, but 2 video cameras allowed playing through Augmented Reality with other A.R. drones (score, life and ammunition could be noted). In addition to being very stable as a model aircraft, handy for amateur filming and innovative for the use of Augmented Reality, it sparked the mass consumption market because its cost was very accessible.
Some years later, in 2013, the Chinese company Dji began entering the market by proposing a drone having more evolved features that could mount an action cam, popular since 2004: the GoPro HERO.
This action cam has quality features at low cost and is ideal for people who already have some experience in film making because it allows making Full HD videos at high fps (frames per second) and in the latest models (HERO3+ e HERO4) even at 4000 pixels, i.e., 4K technology.


UP TO THIS POINT, WE HAVE SPOKEN ABOUT THE USE OF DRONES FOR AMATEUR PURPOSES, but what about those who have greater, more specific needs and for professional aerial shots?
Well... it all depends on a series of technical and regulatory factors. First of all, stability and safety, according to the motor arrangement (quadricopter, hexacopter, octocopter, tricopter, redundant-motor tricopter, etc.), the preciseness of sensor components, the efficacy and professional level of the on-board instrumentation (for example, the gimbal “arm” with servo-motors for the video camera or photo camera), the motor and ESC system and the quality and stability of the LiPo batteries.


AND WHAT ABOUT REGULATORY ASPECTS? IT DEPENDS ON THE COUNTRY. At the beginning of 2014 in Italy, ENAC (the Italian Civil Aviation Authority) began regulating this aspect, establishing that drones and model aircraft (where the distinction is given by the fact that a drone performs specific operations while a model aircraft does not and is hence used for recreation and sports) must share, respect and stay within the V70 air space, i.e., a specific area 70 meters in height having a radius of 200 meters. Furthermore, ENAC identifies the so-called critical operations: areas reserved exclusively for drones and not for model aircraft, to be flown using particular care through VLOS (Visual Line Of Sight), operations that do not involve - even in the event of a malfunctioning - flying above congested areas, crowds of people, urban agglomerations, infrastructures, State-reserved safety areas, train lines and stations, highways and industrial plants.
The following are also to be kept in mind: maintaining an appropriate horizontal flight distance from congested areas, but not less than 150 meters, a distance of 50 meters from people and things (that are not under the direct control of the operator), only during daytime, in uncontrolled aerial spaces, out of ATZ (Aerodrome Traffic Zone) and in any case at a distance of at least 8 km from the perimeter of an airport and related approach/take-off/landing routes.
And what’s more: the pilot must be in possession of all relative authorizations for drones (with a distinction between a weight lower/greater than 25 kg), the drone must be insured and the owner must have passed a medical examination specific for aeronautics.
For more in-depth details, interested persons can find all relative documentation required on the ENAC website (http://bit.ly/sicurezzadroni).
For a course in Italy and abroad, specialized centers are available. In the Lucca area, for example, the “Dimostratore Tecnologico Zefiro”, in collaboration with the company “Aeroporto di Capannori S.p.A.” (Capannori Airport company), is performing experimentation and research for model aircraft and remote-piloting training courses (http://bit.ly/zefirolucca).
In 2013 the Frenchman Eric Dupin designed and created “Dronestagram”, a portal that, using Instagram, allows users to publish the photos taken from the video cameras installed on their drones for the purpose of creating of bird’s eye view of the world’s map.
On the portal, you can find photographs taken with professional drones as well as with amateur model aircrafts and its greatest strength consists in the possibility of accompanying the photographs with their technical characteristics: brand, model and type of photo camera/video camera.
Geo-localization of the photo is also possible, allowing any user to identify the place where it was taken.


IN ADDITION TO TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS AND MAKING AERIAL SHOTS like Dronestagram users do, drones can also be used for marketing and guerrilla marketing activities (i.e., “a marketing strategy in which low-cost, unconventional means (including the use of graffiti, sticker bombing, flyer posting, etc.) were used in a (generally) localized fashion to draw attention to an idea, product, or service,” from Wikipedia).


For example, a few months ago, Amazon USA announced that it would start implementing drones for shipping. This news caused quite a stir. A video which soon became viral shows a drone being loaded in the shipping department and configured for delivery to the customer. The subsequent scenes show the drone delivering to a very happy but initially perplexed customer what he or she had ordered about 3 minutes before. (qrCode 1)
The new “Amazon Prime Air” is intended to be used for certain types of deliveries and this yielded a prompt reaction by the public opinion and media buzz - both through video interactions and the social networks - caused great ferment and also made people reflect on the issue of deliveries. They are usually performed using heavy, polluting vehicles: perhaps this method will also serve to make people more sensitive to a more eco-sustainable delivery.
Maybe we will find ourselves looking at a fleet of these drones arriving at people’s homes? The coming years will tell whether this method will turn out to be as revolutionary as it seems. In the meantime, in the USA, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) retains that drones cannot be used for commercial and civil purposes yet, so Amazon will have to wait.


A SIMILAR CASE IS DESCRIBED IN CHINA: in Shanghai, the company Incake decided to deliver its cake products through a stable hexacopter capable of flying up to 50 meters in the air (remote-piloted by a person on-board a ground vehicle). After promoting this activity through a video on the net (qrCode 2), Incake was able to deliver just a few cakes before local police banned the use of drones for reasons of public safety. Following this event, the company has decided to carry out all the bureaucratic steps necessary for Chinese civil aviation and it looks as though the application will be approved.


TO CONCLUDE, in November 2014, during the “Black Friday” promotional extravaganza (the day after Thanksgiving Day where the major retail chains offer great discounts and exceptional promotions in order to increase sales) a company advertized discounts through the uncommon use of drones and of some light-weight mannequins, making them “fly” in front of the glass windows of the tall skyscrapers. Perhaps a difficult task but certainly an impressive one! (qrCode 3)


FINAL CONSIDERATIONS. As with everything, it is certainly a good idea to document oneself beforehand and to show good sense, but it is sure that the use of drones in certain circumstances can make the difference, not only in marketing but also in rescue operations (some people use drones to analyze danger zones where a rescue must be made but that are difficult to reach via ground vehicles). In October 2014 Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology announced that one of its graduate students had developed a prototype of a drone equipped with a defibrillator for victims of cardiac arrests. Everything could change, simplifying certain bureaucratic aspects and allowing the use of drones in fields up until now unexplored, supplying solutions never available before. The important thing to keep in mind is the respect for safety and security criteria for people and things.
What is sure is that we are facing the dawn of a new technology that is potentially useful for everyone, easily accessible and with virtually infinite uses still unimaginable today.



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