Home » Technology » Drones – The Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Drones – The Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Emerging drone technology

Illustration showing software detecting drone.
DedroneTracker software is helping the good guys track the bad guys. [Image copyright and courtesy DedroneTracker.]

The thing about drones (AKA UAVs, uncrewed aerial vehicles) is – they don’t need a runway. They also don’t need a vertiport. Or air traffic control. As UAVs proliferate, creative minds will find creative ways to use them; sometimes, for the greater good and other times, to commit crimes.

Drones Just Got Added to the Neighborhood Watch

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . . or is it? Residents of Lewiston, New York, a picture-perfect small town near Niagara Falls on the U.S.-Canada border, thought it curious that one of the homes in their neighborhood – while people would come and go from it – seemed unlived in. Seeing its lawn unmowed and occupants who only came and went at odd times, neighbors alerted police, who obtained a search warrant.

Deploying DedroneTracker, drone detection software used by the U.S. federal government, law enforcement was able to triangulate and observe an UAV as it delivered a package to the home’s backyard. The package contained MDMA (3,4 methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), an illegal, synthetic drug which alters a user’s mood and perception of their surroundings.

Bad guys, beware!

Israeli Attack Drone, a Modern Falcon of Sorts

Illustration of a soldier in a desert launching a 3-foot drone that acts as a missile from his arm.

Illustration of Israel Defense Force soldier operating a Point Blank drone. [Image copyright and courtesy Israel Aerospace Industries.]

Evidence suggests people have been practicing falconry in what was Mesopotamia as early as 2,000 B.C. Placing a falcon on their forearm, falconers send their fowl to hunt small prey and return to drop it beside them. In a modern-day version, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) recently debuted a manually launched missile – an attack drone – which is capable of landing back on the soldier’s hand without exploding.

Called Point Blank, the electro-optically guided missile fits in a soldier’s backpack and can be operated by a single soldier. Point Blank is a type of loitering drone, also known as a “suicide drone” or a “kamikaze drone.” Weighing 15 pounds (about 6.8 kgs), Point Blank is 3-feet long (about one meter) and capable of flying at altitudes above 1,500 feet (460 meters) at a maximum speed of 178 mph (about 286 kph). It hovers mid-air as the operator confirms the target’s location and nature. The information is collected and relayed to the operator in real time, allowing the soldier to decide whether or not to initiate an attack or return the drone to land safely in the soldier’s hand.

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded IAI a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract to develop a version of the missile, dubbed ROC-X, for the American market. Watch the Point Blank drone in action.

Small Wonder, a Robot the Size of a Bug

A trio of very tiny avionic components rests on a quarter.

Small change: UW’s avionics components have big consequences for UAVs. [Image copyright and courtesy University of Washington]

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory (AirLab) have developed the components for an avionics system – an accelerometer, optic flow sensor, and microprocessor – to power a gnat-sized robot.

Inspired by fruit flies’ ability to navigate wind, Assistant Professor Sawyer Fuller and Ph.D. students Zhitao Yu and Yash Talweker published their findings in the November 2022 issue of Science Robotics. The paper, “A Gyroscope-free Visual-inertial Flight Control and Wind Sensing System for 10-mg Robots,” eliminates the need for a gyroscope.

The UW team demonstrated their avionics can stabilize an UAV that weighs less than a grain of rice.

This new system is 20 times smaller than previously available micro-avionics components and reduces the avionics power usage more than 100-fold.

Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.