It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s ...a drone!

Katherine Kornobis
10 July 2017

Above: Image © Bestgreenscreen, iStockphoto.com

Flying robots were once the stuff of science fiction. Today, they’re pretty common. Not only are drones cool, but they’re also very useful little machines with many applications. People have used them for military activities, for scientific research, and even for the 2017 Superbowl halftime show! Let’s look at how drones work, and a few of the fascinating ways they can be used.

What exactly is a drone?

Drones are aircraft that can move without a human on board. Many drones look sort of like little helicopters. However, instead of one set of propellers, they have multiple rotors. Some drones have four rotors and others have six. The size of the drone depends on what it’s being used for.

How do drones work?

The multiple rotors are actually what helps the drone stay in flight for so long. They give the drone lift. If one rotor fails, it has at least three others for backup.

The drone has no pilot on board, so it needs a controller. That controller could be a tablet computer, a smartphone, or a traditional remote control like you would use for a toy car. The controller communicates with each of the rotors using radio waves, telling them what to do so the drone may hover, fly forward, climb, or turn.

Many drones include a GPS and an altimeter. The GPS gives the drone’s location, and the altimeter determines its height above the ground.

Drones can’t fly for very long, though. Typically, drones can fly for about 10 minutes before needing a recharge. If drones had extra battery power, they’d get heavier, and they wouldn’t be able to fly as well as they do.

Drone applications in science...

Drones have had a bit of a bad reputation. Some people think of them as something the military uses to spy, and to launch attacks on unsuspecting civilians and military officials.

Did you know? The military also calls drones UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

But drones don’t quite deserve that reputation. The truth is, there’s a lot of amazing drone research happening, and there are plenty of useful ways people can use them!

For example, drones may soon start doing the work of one of the Earth’s main pollinators: bees! Bees are facing all kinds of dangers. Worker bees (the ones that do the actual pollinating) are dying off because of colony collapse disorder. Without bees, many of the food crops people rely on for survival will not grow. People might have to hand-pollinate flowers themselves!

To prepare for this scenario, scientists in Japan are researching how to design little drones that can pollinate. By adding a sticky gel to the surface of these drones, scientists can simulate bees carrying pollen from flower to flower. If this works, drones could give farmers a helping hand in pollinating their crops.

Scientists are also using drones to monitor different animal populations from a safe distance. This is a great way to study animals and their behaviours from afar, as scientists can save the time they’d need to climb up high and monitor birds themselves. They can also save money, since they no longer need large aircraft to perform aerial surveys of large areas.

Did you know? Drones may sound futuristic, but they’re not new. Back in 1919, Elmer Sperry, who invented autopilot technology and the gyroscope, sank a German battleship using a plane with no pilot.

The technology has some limitations, though. Some animals are stressed when drones are around. Also, drones don’t fare well in more extreme conditions, such as those of the Antarctic.

...and beyond

It’s not just science. Drones are showing up in popular culture, too. The 2017 Superbowl LI halftime show featured a drone swarm. As Lady Gaga sang on stage, a large number of drones formed shapes, like company logos and the American flag, in the sky. How large a number? 300, to be exact. And the really amazing thing? All 300 drones were controlled by a single computer! This takes a supreme amount of coordination, because each drone needs to know where the others are so they don’t crash into each other.

A drone of your own

If you think drones sound like cool little devices, pick one up for yourself! Many electronics stores carry them. But be careful where you fly them and what you use them for. If you live near an airport or airfield, drones may interfere with commercial or private pilots and planes.

Also, a lot of countries have restrictions about where and how high you can fly drones. A man flew his drone at a height of about 3.4km, which is much higher than the 150m limit set in the European Union or the 120m set in the United States!

What are some ways you can use drones yourself?

Drones are setting their sights on wildlife (2017)
K. Baggaley, Popular Science

Lady Gaga’s halftime drones are a sign of the coming swarm (2017)
K. D. Atherton, Popular Science

Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators (2017)
S. A. Chechetka, Y. Yu, M. Tange & E. Miyako, Chem 2

This Is How Drones Work (2015)
J.P. Pullen, Time Tech

Katherine Kornobis

Katherine is from Waterloo, Ontario, and is a biology & chemistry teacher in the Waterloo Region District School Board. Her passions include travel, the environment, teaching and learning new things.