Are Quadrotor Drones Going to Invade our Skies?

Are Quadrotor Drones Going to Invade our Skies?

By Francois Callewaert

Starting from a couple millions of dollars in 2010, the quadrotor drone market has exploded in the last 5 years to reach more than $1 billion in 2015. From a geek’s toy, the quadrotor drone has become a professional tool for a growing number of businesses. So what has happened in the last 5 years to spark this revolution? Here we will discuss what a quadrotor drone is, how it evolved through two generations and what is coming in the near future for the third generation.

So, what is a quadrotor drone?

In terms of mechanical and power components, a quadrotor drone aka quadcopter is composed of four propellers and engines, a battery and a frame. The technology has been around for many decades and has not evolved significantly, apart from the design. What really makes a drone special is the electronics and software inside for control, autonomy and advanced functionalities such as camera or transportation tools.

How have these drones evolved over the years?

For the first generation of quadrotor drones (2000-2010), the main challenge was to design a control system for the propellers. The control system needed to be light and very reactive (around 10ms) in order to keep the drone stable. Finally, a quadcopter drone needs an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that will measure its position, angle, speed and acceleration in real time, usually with a combination of accelerometers, gyrometers, magnetometers and a GPS. Recent innovations in portable electronics have been a key enabler for the realization of consumer quadcopter drones. Only in the last 10 years have components such as the IMU and the central command unit (e.g. Raspberry Pi) become cheap and light enough to be integrated in a drone.

At this point, a quadrotor drone was still a geek or graduate student’s toy, as only a good coder could do something with it. The revolution sparked with two key innovations that led to the second generation of quadrotor drones (2010 – 2015, Parrot AR and Bebop, DJI Phantom…) and the commercial success. First is the emergence of smart and intuitive control systems, like proximity sensors to avoid obstacles, motion control with a phone such as in the Parrot A.R drone, or software that allow you to pre-program a flight direction and schedule in your laptop or phone. The second innovation was the integration of a camera, or a GoPro mount such as in the DJI Phantom, and a software suite to control the camera from your phone or laptop. These two innovations enabled anyone to feel the sense of flight and take professional quality videos without the need of a pilot license, which explains the success of this new generation of drones.

It is interesting to compare the drone to the history of information technology as both have evolved through a combination of hardware and software innovations. Like early computers, the first generation of quadcopters focused mostly on performance and stability, which is a combination of microelectronics and algorithm innovations. The second generation focused on the flagship application as a flying camera and on opening the access to the public, a bit like Windows, Word and the worldwide web opened the era of personal computers.

Now, what are the plans for the next generation?

So far, the consumer drone market has focused mostly on recreational use. However, in the same way as hardware and software innovations have brought IT into many more parts of life, new technology will open the use of drones to a growing number of applications, especially in the professional space. On the hardware part, improvements in the battery technology are expected to increase the flight time (now 20-30 minutes), reduce the charging time (now 30 minutes) and increase the cycle lifetime (around 100 cycles). New functionalities are being explored such as package delivery (Amazon Prime Air), sensing, communications and even crop spraying (DJI Agras). On the software part, drones are becoming smarter and smarter, for example being able to go from point A to point B autonomously, following a moving target (very useful for movies), coming back home in case of communication failure or even performing monitoring activities autonomously.

Some examples of the applications opened by these new capabilities include package delivery, rescue operations, monitoring and wireless telecommunications in remote areas, among a large number of other possible applications. This is a huge business and technology opportunity, with a market estimated to grow to $4 billion by 2020, and maybe much more if professional applications really take over. We might see drones flying around everywhere in the near future, the same way as cars on the road.

With great power comes great responsibilities. Although drones are an amazing opportunity, they are also a huge safety threat. So far, multiple dangerous use cases have been reported such as drones crashing into humans, flying next to airports or nuclear plants, destroying power lines… Many other issues are yet to come such as privacy, piracy or terrorism, which will need strong regulations and also the development of better safety systems and artificial intelligence.

As a conclusion, drones are an amazing promise for humans to control the third dimension. They are most likely going to play a significant role in our lives very soon, but, at the same time, will be a big threat that we need to be aware of.


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