Just a short while ago, drones were mainly used by the military to do reconnaissance work and strikes in hostile territory. But today the story is very different.
Millions of drones now fly in the skies above us with controllers in the hands of hobbyists and entrepreneurs — a situation that would have surprised anybody had it been predicted in the 90s.
So when did drones become so popular? And how did that happen?
When Did Drones Become More Popular?
Many experts and stakeholders designate 2006 as the watershed year that launched the rise of commercial drones in modern society.
It was in 2006 that the Federal Aviation Administration, after having realized the potential non-military applications such as using drones for photography or for filming movies, issued the first commercial drone permits.
These permits lifted the restrictions that had been holding back commercial drones from being flown for recreational purposes.
And new possibilities were suddenly opened as a result.
People who had recognized the potential of drones to tilt the needle could now apply them in a wide range of business ventures.
Applications for requests were slow to begin with, but the floodgates soon opened, and today we have drones everywhere.
What Breakthroughs in Technology Allowed This?
De-regulation by the FAA was not the only ingredient that went into making the commercial drone revolution which we enjoy today.
It is one thing to get the go-ahead to do something, and quite another to actually have the tools you need to go ahead and do it.
Therefore, the technological breakthroughs that made drones light enough and powerful enough need also be applauded.
The technology breakthroughs served to shift three key things in favor of mass production commercial drones:
- Reduction of cost of production — and therefore purchase price
- Reduction of weight of the device
- Increased access and efficiency of key components
Sometimes, these breakthroughs addressed more than one of these key issues.
Lithium Polymer Batteries
Batteries — a component that is constantly evolving even now. The lithium polymer battery (Lithium cobalt oxide) that drones use is able to store power in large capacities while still being small. This is crucial for keeping drones light enough to lift their own weights and hover.
It also releases stored energy slower than other types of batteries that were prevalent in the years preceding the rise of commercial drones.
Before the first commercial drones were assembled, the best batteries were Nickel-Cadmium and Nickel-Manganese Hydride models. These batteries were too heavy to allow for hovering drones — although they could support fixed wing military drones — and they did not release their stored energy very efficiently.
It was not until the lightweight and energy-dense Lithium polymer battery made its entrance that manufacturers were able to see a way around the weight problem.
And the battery weight is just one problem out of a slew of problems with electric powered flight.
MEMS Accelerometer and Gyroscope
Another has to do with the electrical stabilization systems that hovering drones rely on.
Commercial drones capable of hovering rely on an electrical stabilization system which requires accelerometers and gyroscopes to function. Without going into much scientific details, these are sensors that aid in balancing out and stabilizing the movement of the drone while it flies.
And only in the last decade, thanks in large part to the smartphone industry, have these sensors become affordable.
The creation of low-cost MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems) accelerators and gyroscopes were a major breakthrough, without which the widespread adoption of commercial drones would just not have been possible.
What used to cost hundreds of dollars suddenly became very affordable (typically $5 or less) because of the rise of smartphones.
Another technological breakthrough that reduced the cost of production and lowered the barrier of entry for enthusiasts was the creation of cheap microcontrollers. And this was a result of the maker movement started in 2006.
In addition to the MEMS accelerometer and gyroscope sensors needed for stability, drones also need enough processing power to estimate its position and process the sensor data.
That’s what the microcontrollers are for. And they have been around for a long time. However, it is thanks to the maker movement that microcontrollers small enough, cheap enough, and powerful enough were made accessible to hobbyists.
To say this reduced the barrier of entry to developing the essential hovering drone systems is almost an understatement.
Commercial drones require very powerful motors. At the same time, powerful motors tend to be heavy.
The very recent introduction of small, high torque, permanent magnet brushless motors changed all that for hobbyists. Before these brushless motors became available, you had to make do with relatively weaker brushed motors with weaker iron magnets.
High Power Density Switching Semiconductors
High power density switching semiconductors aid in controlling the high amounts of power generated by the brushless motors for powering the drone.
It is only in the last couple of decades that field-effect transistor technologies became sophisticated enough to achieve power densities and efficiencies to allow the miniaturization of high power rectifiers. This was a key component necessary for the smooth-running of the high-torque brushless motors.
A bunch of technological breakthroughs came together to enable the GPS based flying that commercial drones are known for.
First of there was the smartphone industry that boomed shortly after 2006. Then there was the push from the US Air Force to make higher positioning accuracies available civilians. Also, several more GPS satellites were launched during that period to boost the SBAS system, and so on and so forth.
Long story short, the rise of commercial drones coincided with the perfection and augmentation of GPS systems across the globe.
This allowed for higher accuracies and cheaper GPS modules — key components of the typical commercial autonomous GPS drones today.
All these technological breakthroughs played a part in putting commercial drones within the reach of enthusiasts and recreational pilots.
As production costs, manufacturing efficiencies, and technological limits evolved in favor of efficient mass production, what was once the preserve of the military was now available for private use.
Will the Market Keep Growing?
According to the Drone Market Report 2019, we can expect the drone industry to keep growing. Studies predict that by 2024, it should be a $43 billion dollar industry; up from $14 billion in 2018, as drones become integral parts of several industries.
It’s gonna be upwards and onwards for drone lovers from here on.