13 High-flying facts about drones

BY Marc Saltzman

14th Nov 2023 Technology

3 min read

13 High-flying facts about drones
Drones are everywhere these days, from being used for stunning videos and photography to their shadowy use by militaries around the world. Here are 13 facts you need to know about unmanned aerial vehicles

1. Drones date back centuries

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, may seem like recent technology, but the earliest iteration took flight in 1849, during the First Italian War of Independence.
An Austrian artillery lieutenant, Franz Von Uchatius, used pilotless balloons packed with explosives to attack Venice. The attack was mostly unsuccessful; some balloons even blew back to Austria.

2. The Dronefather built the first modern drone in the early 1970s

Abraham Karem (the “Dronefather”), a Baghdad-born, Israeli-raised engineer, built the first modern drone for reconnaissance during the Yom Kippur War in the early 1970s. After immigrating to the United States, Karem went on to design the MQ-1 Predator drone, which fired its first combat missile over Afghanistan in October 2001, completely transforming the strategy and tactics of military combat.
"Drones have completely transformed the strategy and tactics used for military combat"
Today, drones play a pivotal role in the Russia-Ukraine war. In addition to being used for reconnaissance, combat drones have struck both Moscow and Kyiv. Drones have also been used to drop food and medical supplies to Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.

3. Some drones are expensive, some are cheap

Man holding controller flying drone at edge of ocean
Military drones resemble small aeroplanes and can cost more than £12 million, but mini versions (sometimes called “quadcopters”) look more like small helicopters; they are widely available for as little as £30.
Most are remotely operated via either a controller or a smartphone app, but some models can fly autonomously thanks to GPS, sensors and software as well as cameras that help them avoid obstacles.

4. Drones must be registered and are restricted in their use

In many countries, you must register your drone with the authorities before you put it in the sky. Some countries also require drone owners to get third-party liability insurance.
In Europe, users must be at least 16, and drones are banned from flying in urban areas.

5. Drones cannot be flown in "no-fly" zones due to GPS tracking 

GPS tracking prevents drones from entering “no-fly” zones, such as airports and government facilities. The drone will either automatically turn around and go back to the user, or land itself.
"If a drone has been illegally modified to enter a no-fly zone, it could be shot down by authorities or electronically 'jammed'"
If a drone has been illegally modified to enter a no-fly zone, it could be shot down by authorities or electronically “jammed” so it falls out of the sky. The user could face a hefty fine or even imprisonment.

6. Flying drones over private residential property is illegal

Be cautious about flying a drone over private residential property: residents have a right to privacy, meaning drones should not be used to hover near or peer into windows. If you believe you’re being recorded by a drone, report it.
Not surprisingly, celebrities have become targets of “paparazzi drones.” In 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle filed a lawsuit against paparazzi for flying a drone above their California home and capturing photos of their son.

7. Drones are fast and there's a World Drone Prix

Young man with controller flying drone on railway track
Drones can go from 0 to 90 miles per hour in less than one second!
The first “World Drone Prix” was held in Dubai in 2016. A UK teen won the £205,000 grand prize after manoeuvring his drone through 12 laps of the 780-metre course the fastest.

8. Search-and-rescue drones save lives

Using cameras, along with sensors that can detect body heat, search-and-rescue drones help locate missing people and animals.
They’re used in hard-to-reach areas such as a dense forest or mountainous ski hill, and can even search under rubble in the aftermath of a natural disaster—as was the case in Turkey following the magnitude-7.8 earthquake earlier this year.

9. Drones also help authorities nab criminals

In 2016, authorities in Alameda, California used a drone to track a suspect and record video of them discarding drugs and guns, which led to their arrest.
"Wildlife conservationists are using them to catch elephant and rhinoceros poachers in Africa"
Wildlife conservationists are also using them to catch elephant and rhinoceros poachers in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

10. Criminals are also using drones

Both sides of the law are utilising drones—to commit as well as stop crime. 

In 2022, 20 people were arrested for using drones to smuggle drugs, weapons and cash into Lee Correctional Institution in the US state of South Carolina.

11. A drone may one day deliver your online order to your door

White drone with camera mounted on bottom
Delivery drones are being tested in Europe, the UK and Australia, among other places.

In 2021, a company called Drone Delivery Canada was used to deliver pharmaceuticals and COVID-19 tests between remote towns. 

12. Drones can help the planet and endangered species

Not only are drones a more environmentally friendly delivery method—most small drones are powered by batteries—but they can help the planet in other ways, too.
Conservationists and researchers are using them to monitor endangered species, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation used them to conduct a census of green turtles. Meanwhile, drones can also help reforest areas devastated by wildfires; tree “seed pods” can be dropped across landscape that’s too dangerous for humans to traverse.

13. Soon enough, we might be flying in drones ourselves!

The first “passenger drone” was unveiled in 2016 by EHang, a Chinese company. It’s still going through rigorous testing.
Perhaps one day we’ll take one to work and fly over rush-hour traffic—without needing a pilot’s licence. 
Banner credit: Drone in flight (Pok RIe)

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