We know about their use in war zones and for aerial photography, but drones could be used to assist a man overboard or deliver a spare part. Toby Hodges looks at the new types of drone and their uses
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), made their name through widespread (and controversial) use by military forces over the past two decades. Outside the military, however, a drone’s primary benefit, aerial photography, has meant their popularity has skyrocketed in civilian circles, where they are primarily used for producing film or using the imagery for inspection purposes.
So far it has been for photography that drones have mostly been used in sailing. They have given us a new angle on yachts under sail, the type of close-up aerial footage a helicopter can’t manage – drone footage from the current Volvo Ocean Race has been particularly impressive.
The downsides? Although great for media and high-profile team training, drone photography can be costly, risky and annoying for other sailors in the vicinity.
However, some new quadcopter-type drones are coming onto the market now which may put them more into the mainstream sailor’s focus. These include the first waterproof model, another that flies autonomously to film your every move, and one that can drop a lifesaving device to a casualty in the water.
How drones and water can mix
One of the main problems with drones used for sailing photography is that they don’t mix with water. One mistake or problem at sea and you stand to lose not only the drone, but the camera it’s carrying.
The Lily cam (below) could address this when it launches next year. It is the first throw-and-shoot camera copter available. It’s a frighteningly futuristic-looking device that automatically follows and films its user. And it’s waterproof.
Another new drone to look out for is the Splash Drone. This is sure to be popular with sailing photographers as it will be the first fully waterproof unit, including a waterproof camera-carrying gimbal. And it floats.
In the Splash Drone and Ryptide, we will also see a couple of new types of payload release devices, which are of particular potential benefit to sailors.
Ryptide, for example, enables existing drones to carry a lifering to a swimmer or man overboard. Dutch students from Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have developed an Ambulance Drone to deliver a defibrillator to the scene of a heart attack. And one of the initial goals of the Splash Drone was to be able to ignite and carry a flare to attract attention.
While a pyrotechnic flare and an aerial robot might not perhaps be the best partners, the benefit of flying an electronic flare is obvious.
Add to that the ability simply to deliver a spare part or cold beer to another yacht, without having to pump up the inflatable and you start to imagine many possibilities.
What are drones used for?
Commercial drones are already used for increasingly varied purposes, from inspecting or surveying roofs, pipelines and building sites, to collecting data from fires or crime scenes.
They were used in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake – as well as bringing devastating images – and the American Red Cross says drones are one of the most promising new technologies for disaster response and relief.
Although drones are already proving valuable in circumstances that are dangerous for relief workers or in search and rescue operations, they are still fragile items and can risk injuring people. A Swiss company is developing the Gimball, which uses a roll-cage to make it the ‘world’s first collision-proof drone’. The Gimball is reportedly easy to fly, can be used close to people and can fly indoors and in confined places.
Drones in homes are proving equally popular. It is thought that over a million domestic drones are already in use. Again their primary purpose is photography. Some have built-in cameras, some are designed to carry action cams such as GoPro, and some can carry payloads.
They are controlled using remote joysticks or via mobile devices using wi-fi. The promotional video for the self-flying Lily camera (see below), which shows it following a snowboarder and kayaker automatically, went viral when unveiled in mid-May. Lily arguably opens our eyes to the potential of domestic drones more than any other product thus far.
The future of drones
Understandably, the widespread use of drones has given rise to much debate about the safety of operating these flying robots, particularly around airports and busy airspace. And with the majority being used to shoot video, the subject of privacy is a very real concern.
“If your drone is under 20kg and you’re not using it for commercial reasons, then you still have some rules to follow,” says Matthew Sparkes, technology expert at the Daily Telegraph. “Anyone filming with a drone for their own purposes must avoid flying it within 150m of a congested area and 50m of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.”
It is possible to buy a basic drone to fly in your house for £30 from Amazon today, a company that, together with firms such as Google and Domino’s, is trialling the use of drones for delivering parcels. In the US, private commercial drones have to be used during daytime within line of sight of the operator, which currently rules out these delivery drones.
Google and Facebook are also developing solar-powered drones that can fly for years at a time at over 60,000ft above the Earth in a bid to make wireless internet totally global – a frightening thought.
Camilleri Marine Team