What's the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Cirque du Soleil? Most likely daring trapeze artists swinging high in the air. Or sumptuous costumes and sets. But probably not drones. And yet, that’s precisely what the circus has been using in one of its acts . A whole squadron of drones float up in unison and perform a kind of synchronized dance in mid-air while an artist controls them - with his body. Just one of the many ways in which these little, unmanned aircraft can be used these days.
Drones were originally developed by the military for aerial reconnaissance and surveillance, but also for air strikes. Consequently, for many people, the word “drone” now has negative connotations that are completely at odds with their steadily increasing civilian uses. Civilian drones tend in the main to be multicopters, with quadcopters among the most popular designs. With four rotors, they’re still mechanically simple enough to make production and maintenance cost-effective, while being able to perform complex aerial maneuvers. In most cases, these units are remote-controlled by humans, but they are arguably at their most fascinating when they fly autonomously and communicate and interact with one another.
"Quads are extremely agile, but this agility comes at a cost," says Raffaello D'Andrea, a pioneer in the field of autonomous motion control technologies. "They are inherently unstable, and they need some form of automatic feedback control in order to be able to fly." D’Andrea's quadcopters get this vital information from cameras and sensors that are configured as a kind of indoor GPS system that continuously captures the quadcopter’s position and uses sophisticated control algorithms to compute flight routes. Derived from mathematical models, these algorithms are the intelligence that enables the drones to catch items that are tossed to them, balance items in mid-air and make collaborative decisions.
These sorts of algorithms in fact make up the bulk of the work undertaken by drone researchers worldwide. The researchers are focusing primarily on developing self-learning systems that can autonomously adapt to their surroundings. Meanwhile, out of the lab, there are already many real-life drone applications.
Agriculture is a case in point. In the town of Beckum in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, drones are being used in field trials to combat agricultural pests. Specifically, they are being used in lieu of tractors to distribute the eggs and larvae of a wasp species that is a natural predator of a worm that is damaging corn crops. The drones can cover 32 hectares per day, which is a lot more than traditional dispersal methods, and, more importantly, they don’t damage the crops.
Drones can also play a role in industry. They can, for example, be used to inspect power, gas and oil lines, which is a lot less hazardous to health than using human inspectors. What’s more, drones are able to do these jobs unscathed, thanks to the latest damage-resistant technology. The quadcopters made by Microdrones , for example, can even handle magnetic fields and high-voltage power lines transmitting as much as 380 kV.
In the logistics sector, major players like Amazon and DHL plan to start using drones to deliver parcels in the very near future. DHL is in fact currently trialing drones for urgent deliveries of medical supplies to the North Sea island of Juist. So, in a few years’ time, will we be living below a buzzing cloud of minicopters? Unlikely, given that the current technology has a very limited flight radius. But the main obstacle in the way of large-scale drone use is legal, with commercial drone flights in both the USA and Germany currently illegal unless expressly permitted. Market experts believe that, in the USA at least, this requirement for flight-by-flight authorization will be lifted midway through this year, albeit with tight restrictions, e.g. daylight flights only and strictly within the line of sight of the "pilot." At this stage, it’s too early to say whether Europe will follow suit.
There are, of course, still many unanswered questions on the practicalities of drone use. What potential new business models will this technology enable? Which of these models will be viable? If high-resolution aerial photography becomes accessible to all and sundry, how will we safeguard against industrial espionage? And where does the balance lie between safety and innovation? These are the questions facing government policymakers, scientists and businesses worldwide. And CeBIT 2016 is an excellent forum at which to look for answers. The show is featuring a new platform, the DRONEMASTERS Summit featuring an exhibition with all the latest innovations as well as a discussion forum – the DMS16 Conference , where leading experts will explore future opportunities in drone technology.