By now, everyone has heard about military drones, but what about the growing number of civilian applications? Check out our blog on drones and corporate security.
Also called “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), drones have become a significant part of how we perceive war and security in the 21st century. Their military benefits are obvious. They are unmanned and controlled remotely – even from thousands of miles away – so they place no one on your side at risk even when sent to hostile areas. They carry everything from cameras to missiles and can perform a wide variety of combat and surveillance operations. And while military-grade drones are not exactly cheap, they are far less expensive to purchase and operate than the manned versions they replace. This blog examines how drone technology is moving from purely military use into other applications, including security. But first, let’s take a quick look at how UAVs have developed into the powerful combat tools they are today.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRONES
Unmanned aerial vehicles have been around in one form or another for a long time. Austrians attacked Venice using unmanned balloons loaded with explosives back in 1849. During the First World War radio-controlled aerial devices were deployed against zeppelins, and the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane saw service as a form of aerial torpedo against enemy planes. For decades, UAVs were not much more than rudimentary explosive-delivery devices aimed at hostile targets. World War Two saw the deployment of radio planes for training anti-aircraft gunners, and aerial torpedoes were still being used without much success. From the 1960s to the 1980s, military drones were primarily used for surveillance. In the 1990s, technological developments and miniaturization ushered in a new era for drones. And when the US military developed its system of global positioning satellites (GPS), drones as we now know them became possible. Since GPS became fully operational in 1995, things have moved quickly. Another type of drone also emerged: Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs). Since then, both aerial and ground drones have been used extensively in military conflicts all around the globe. But as technology progresses, engineering companies have come to realize that drones could be used for much more than warfare.
CIVIL AND DOMESTIC DRONES
With drones proving themselves so effective, using them for non-military purposes became not only a tangible possibility, but an exciting one. Civil and domestic drones have been talked about since the early 2000s and are now rapidly appearing in the skies all around the world. Just in Europe, for example, the European Commission reports that there are currently over 400 projects across 20 countries working on UAVs and UGVs. Most of the companies developing them are small to medium-sized. With technology making the devices cheaper, more reliable, and more customizable, the question nowadays isn’t what can they do but what can’t they do? Here ‘s a brief list of how unmanned vehicles are currently being used, or will soon be used:
- Farming and agriculture: Aerial surveys, crop-dusting, daily mapping. Using drones, farmers can selectively spray pesticides on plants that need it rather than spraying an entire field, reducing damage to the environment and cutting costs, too. Infrared cameras can detect both healthy plants as well as those suffering from fungal infections.
- Sports and other events: Why use expensive helicopters when you can strap a camera to a $5000 drone and capture live aerial HD shots of any event? The tech has already been used at the Olympics and the World Cup, and there’s no doubt it’s only the beginning. Coaches are also using them in order to improve their team’s strategy–whether on the field or skiing down a hill.
- Delivery: Domino’s made some waves in 2013 when the company released footage of a small drone delivering a pizza. See a short video here. Amazon is also working on its own fleet of service drones. The idea is that small quadcopters could bring packages to your doorstep much quicker than any other mode of transportation. And the idea doesn’t stop with food or household goods. A nonprofit called Matternet is already building drones to distribute medicine in remote areas of the world. In Austria, a graduate student recently devised a system where a quadcopter could deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims, reaching a person in need much faster than an ambulance would.
- Photography and reconnaissance: The sky is (literally) the limit when it comes to using UAVs for non-military recon and data gathering. NASA is already using drones to test the makeup of the ozone. Oil and gas companies want to use them to detect faulty pipelines in need of maintenance. In Italy, drones already spy on illegal waste dumping. Firefighters hope to use them in order to put out wildfires more effectively. Indonesian scientists have been using them to keep track of endangered orangutans. Artists are also getting in on the fun – check out this fascinating video filmed in Beijing.
DRONES AND CORPORATE SECURITY
With drones now being used in such a wide array of fields, there’s no doubt that the security sector will soon also benefit from them. In 2012, Japanese company Secom announced the world’s first autonomous drone for private security. Since then, dozens of other security firms have joined the fray, competing to offer their clients the best high-tech protection possible. Here in Denmark, a number of companies are already selling drones capable of advanced surveillance operations. One of them is Sky-Watch, whom we recently met at a trade fair. According to Michael Messerschmidt, senior business development manager at Sky-Watch, the demand for drones is poised to take off soon. “At this point in time,” says Messerschmidt, “few people doubt the future potential of the UAV market. It’s really a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. The ‘when’ is to a large extent determined by the legislative authorities in the EU and the US, as these countries set the standards for aviation rules. Right now, the laws regarding UAVs are more ‘Wild West’ than anything else, and a lot of people are deploying drones without asking permission. However, when legislation that categorizes drones based on their level of technology is in place, it’s easy to see how they can help reduce government spending as well as save lives. The applications are countless, and the technology has the potential to revolutionize the many processes and change the game from manual to autonomous.” Here are a few examples of how drones will be used to change the face of modern security:
- Airport and port security: Abu Dhabi and Gatwick were the first in line to deploy drones in order to ensure on-site safety. In Gatwick, “Skyranger” drones equipped with high-definition cameras take snapshots and forward them to officers using portable consoles up to half a kilometer away. In Abu Dhabi, drone cameras are being used to assess and monitor accidents, to provide information during search and rescue situations, and to gather information about approaching vessels or ships with sensitive cargos.
- Event protection: What used to be thought of as future technology is already part of the past. Both the Sochi Olympics and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil have used drones in order to secure the events. Providing 24-hour air surveillance over high-traffic areas, the unmanned vehicles were used to track crowds and report any sign of disturbance to local law enforcement officers and security companies. The goal of using aerial drones during crowded events is to stifle unrest before it even becomes an issue. While recording events from high above and gathering vast amounts of data, the drones regularly beam back information to ground level, helping secure locations much faster than a regular camera would have.
- Crowd control: A South Africa-based firm called Desert Wolf recently started selling its Skunk Riot Control Copter. The goal? “Control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff.” The system carries four high-capacity gun barrels loaded with up to 4,000 paintballs, pepper spray balls and solid plastic balls. Its device has already been sold to mining companies and security firms in South Africa and abroad. See more here.
- Remote surveillance: Ground cameras, no matter how high-tech, are still limited by their design. If an intruder steps out of a camera’s field of vision, the camera essentially becomes useless. This won’t be the case with airborne cameras, at least according to Secom. They’ve recently unveiled a quadrotor that can be launched in case of a break-in and record crucial footage, covering areas that are usually out of reach. The automaton is fully capable of tracking moving subjects thanks to its laser sensors. Once technology improves, surveillance drones will likely patrol at-risk areas 24 hours a day, acting both as a deterrent and as a set-and-forget mechanism against break-ins.
- Remote reconnaissance: Recon drones can be used to ensure the safety of a location before even reaching it. By dispatching a UAV prior to arrival, we will be able to record footage of the destination and make sure there’s nothing afoot. And they’re flexible, too. Not limited to the outdoors, they’re already being used by law enforcement in several countries to scout indoor locations. In 2013, French counterterrorism commandos used Recon Scout robots just before storming a house where a gunman was hiding. A company called ReconRobotics hopes soon to release a small tethered quadrocopter capable of fitting into an infantryman’s pouch, which would allow him to silently check a building’s upper floors.
- Personal security: We’re not quite there yet – and the legislation surrounding it are barely even drafted – but personal security drones might also be used to disable intruders or criminals once an alarm has been triggered. At the 2014 South By Southwest festival, a company called Chaotic Moon Studios demonstrated one of those drones, equipped with a stun gun. The “pilot” gleefully used his cellphone to control the UAV, tagging one of the company’s interns as “hostile” and stunning him with 80,000 volts of electricity.
At AS Solution, we expect drones to play a bigger role in many security operations soon. What do you think?
You can also read our latest blog post: Drones and corporate security: What’s new in 2016?