Drones: Flying Home - Extending their influence from battlefields to domestic skies

Posted Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 2:20 PM

"Drone technology originally developed for the military is making its way into everyday life."

Drones: Flying Home - Extending their influence from battlefields to domestic skies

PostedThursday, November 6, 2014 at 2:37 PM

Grace Lam
Grace Lam
Drones: Flying Home - Extending their influence from battlefields to domestic skies

Photo “Drone and Moon” by Don McCullough [CC-BY-2.0], via Flickr


Author: Grace Lam

Like a hunting eagle circling the skies, an American military drone soared over Pakistan’s tribal belt in search of its prey: Abu Yahya al-Libi. One Hellfire missile later, the drone terminated the unsuspecting al-Libi along with a dozen militants, annihilating the mud-brick house in which they gathered. The U.S. had just taken out al-Qaeda’s second in command, with not a single soldier deployed in the mission. As Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, explains, drones have revolutionized warfare, from war tactics to the public’s perception of war [1]. Today, over a third of the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of aircraft is unmanned. But soon, drones will not only be a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but also a game-changer back at home.

Like the many products we’ve come to love, including silly putty, feminine pads, microwave ovens, and GPS [2], drones are the result of commercialized military technology. To engineers, just as the five senses are essential to human well-being, so too are sensors vital to drones. The rise of small, inexpensive drones is largely attributed to engineering advancements in high-resolution cameras, tiny MEMS sensors, and integrated GPS modules in recent years. Experts say the drone industry could fuel an $82-billion economic boom over the next decade [3] and create a vast number of engineering jobs in designing and manufacturing commercial drones.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) was among the first to offer a minor in drone technology to prepare engineering students for this booming industry. While working towards his mechanical engineering degree at UNLV, Greg Friesmuth designed and built an award-winning drone prototype for indoor radiation detection [4]. Later turning the prototype into a product, Friesmuth cofounded Skyworks with fellow student Jinger Zeng, and recruited several UNLV students from electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science to join their team. Based on a proprietary frame design using carbon fiber composites created in a UNLV lab, Friesmuth and his engineers developed a lightweight and impact resistant drone optimized for indoor applications. Today, Skyworks is just one of the many startups and corporations that are developing commercial drones to tackle tasks from pizza delivery to coral research at Stanford [5].

Selected by the MIT Technology Review as one of the top ten breakthrough technologies of 2014, agricultural drones priced under $1,000 are becoming very useful tools to help farmers increase crop yields [6]. High-quality aerial images captured by advanced high-resolution cameras in agricultural drones enable farmers to immensely improve their irrigation systems and pest management.

Not only do drones save crops, but they also save lives. When natural disasters occur, it takes only minutes to have drones up in the air delivering medication, food, and aid to people in need. The convenience and promptness of drones prove to be beneficial in local emergencies, too. Drones can send defibrillators to heart attack victims, search for stranded hikers and avalanche victims, and fight and track wildfires.

In addition to delivering first aid to disaster sites, drones will soon be delivering other items to our homes. Domino’s recently proposed delivering pizza as a new use of drones, reasoning that the pizza would be fresher and tastier when it gets to your front door. Similarly, Amazon and Google have been working on developing drone prototypes that can deliver lightweight online orders. Soon, people will be able to receive online purchases in mere hours on the same day, taking the online shopping experience to a whole new level.

As surprising as this may sound, drones have even become celebrities in Hollywood. While Leonardo DiCaprio has yet to win an Oscar, the Flying-Cam SARAH 3.0 has already won two. Today, many filmmakers are using drones to capture tricky scenes and revolutionary shots. With few limitations, SARAH can perform many feats, including rising to 400 feet, running on autopilot, and hovering in more than 30mph winds.

However, just like any other technology created by engineers, good technology can end up in bad hands, which raises concerns such as misuse of drones and loss of privacy. For instance, terrorists may use drones to carry explosive devices, and criminals can use them as vessels to smuggle illegal goods across borders. Drones can also pose a threat to privacy, making it easier to spy on people in their backyards and out on the streets. If not properly regulated, drones can easily become the paparazzi’s best friend and celebrities’ worst nightmare. To ensure drones do not infringe on the right to privacy, California lawmakers are seeking to pass a measure to restrain drone-based surveillance.

From the Greeks who created the myth of Icarus to the Wright brothers, humanity has always shown fascination with the glorious idea of defying gravity and soaring into the skies. With the engineering innovation of drones, we can now reach new heights, but we must explore this uncharted territory with caution, else we fly too high and our wings begin to melt.


  1. Grossman, Lev. “Drone Home.” Time. 11 Feb. 2013.
  2. Sauter, Michael, Alexander Hess, and Thomas Frohlich. “Famous Products Invented for the Military.” 247wallst.com. 20 Aug. 2013.
  3. Atherton, Kelsey, et al. “25 Reasons To Love Drones.” Popular Science. 8 July 2014.
  4. Harris, Derrick. “An undergrad, a drone and a dream: New FAA rules have a UNLV student smelling opportunity.” Gigaom. 16 Jan. 2014.
  5. Jordan, Rob. “Stanford drones open way to new world of coral research.” Stanford Report. 16 Oct. 2013.
  6. Anderson, Chris. “Agricultural Drones.” MIT Technology Review. 23 Apr. 2014.
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