You’re out walking around the park and suddenly you hear a strange buzzing sound. Your head snaps up and your eyes dart around the sky, looking for a bird, a plane, an injured man in a cape, something. After a moment of confusion, you spot the glint of an LED. Your eyes lock in on a tiny swooping object. It’s like a loud, clumsy, hideous hummingbird. A drone!
Five years ago, almost nobody had seen one of these tiny craft. Why the explosion in pint-sized private aircraft loaded with cameras and lights and accessories? Has some technology suddenly matured and revolutionized the industry?
Actually, yes. Smartphones and miniaturization.
In the past, small devices for controlling aircraft were the purview of the military. These military devices were expensive and mostly illegal to sell for private use. Additionally they were still a bit too bulky for use on aircraft as small as personal private drones. The massive boom in smartphones has changed that. There has been a rush to build ultra-small devices on tiny chips, capable of living inside a wafer-thin smartphone and not draining its diminutive battery.
Do you play games on your phone? Every time you lean the phone sideways to slide your character across the screen, a tiny accelerometer chip in the phone is measuring that tilt and reacting accordingly. (Look here for an in-depth discussion on how they work.) The short of it is that a technology called MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) has matured to allow microscopic silicon simple machines to be built on the same chips as the electronics to read them. This means that instead of a bulky and large mechanical gyroscope, a chip smaller than a dime can easily measure acceleration in all three spatial directions.
And, it’s not just accelerometers either. GPS chips that allow for precise location of the craft have undergone a similar technological revolution. These chipsets used to be too large, power-guzzling, and hot. Now the same slim smartphones house GPS on another chip the size of a dime.
That tiny high-def camera that lives in your phone is at home on the drone too. Right next to the minute Micro-SD card on which it stores images.
All these tiny devices weigh almost nothing and don’t draw much power. This allows a drone to be flown and controlled by a tiny circuit board, so the craft can weight almost nothing outside of the engines and batteries to power them.
The drone population has literally exploded along with their capabilities for troublesome use. What is the legal situation? At this point it’s all up in the air, so to speak. A 2007 FAA ban on commercial use will end this year. Regulators are currently working on new legislation for both commercial and private use.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com