The pros and cons of drones

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By Jon Reid

If a recent publicity grab by Amazon is to be believed, Santa will have some help delivering presents in the near future. Help in the form of flying robot drones. Specifically, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with the capacity to carry standard sized parcels from local Amazon depots to homes much faster than via traditional methods. This idea is especially interesting in Canada with the announcement of Canada Post’s plan to phase out urban home delivery.

Many skeptics feel that the Amazon delivery drone idea is nothing more than hype, a well-timed publicity boost to remind us all that Amazon is there to help with last-minute holiday shopping. And in truth, it’s hard to ignore the potential issues. Besides regulatory considerations in low altitude air traffic, package laden unmanned vehicles would make awfully attractive targets. A new age of BB gun wielding parcel pirates could not be far behind.

Still, drones are becoming more pervasive. Military organizations have been trying to find a place for UAVs in the field for over a century. Over the past few years we have seen drones take on surveillance, both domestic and international, and military actions overseas.

In the realm of science, NASA is using former military surveillance drones, Global Hawk aircraft, to help them understand more about how tropical storms intensify. For this type of research, drones are accepted to be better than a piloted aircraft since they can fly higher and for longer. In the case of the Global Hawk, it can stay in the air for 28 hours at an altitude of  20 kilometres.

Keeping in mind that NASA received the Global Hawk free of charge from the military, it’s easy to see why UAVs for research purposes have been slow to catch on. The purchase price of a Global Hawk without any sensory equipment is in the range of $20M. But components are getting cheaper and interest is growing so expect to see more applied research using UAVs. For example, the University of Colorado is using a smaller UAV, the Tempest, to chase storms at a cost of only a few thousand dollars.

Drones have already found a domestic use here in Canada. Earlier this year, the RCMP committed to the purchase of a helicopter drone for use in emergency response scenarios. Until now, the RCMP has had to rent or purchase a full-sized helicopter to perform some emergency response functions so a drone will represent a significant cost saving measure. The RCMP had successfully used a helicopter drone in search and rescue situations in the past, but has had to rent a drone from a private company. Provincially, both Ontario and Saskatchewan use drones to take photos for use in investigations.

A look at a specification requirements for the RCMP drone give us a fair idea of their awesome capabilities. The minimum requirements listing states that the drone must fit in the trunk of a standard RCMP cruiser, it must be able to carry both a digital and forward looking infrared cameras at the same time, it must be able to perform motion tracking, it must have a flight time of no less than 40 minutes and it must have encrypted data linking with a one-kilometre line of sight transmission range.

Drones aren’t just for commercial, military and scientific groups either. Hobbyists are bringing drones to the masses. Soaring interest has pushed prices down significantly over the past few years. So much so that some good quality toy drones can be purchased with a price as low as $50. The high-end drone kits are still in the hundreds of dollars, but the durability and functionality corresponds to that increase in price.

Jon Reid is an IT professional working in Corner Brook. His column appears every other Tuesday in The Western Star.

Organizations: Amazon, RCMP, NASA Canada Post University of Colorado

Geographic location: Canada, Ontario, Saskatchewan Corner Brook Western Star

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