By Nick Gilbert Popsci AU
To quote a certain moustachioed British comedian, don’t mention the war. Just don’t. Specifically, don’t mention all those remote controlled, explosive-payload-carrying aerial drones, the ones that are as much a part of modern warfare as the guys on the ground. In much the same way that the internal combustion engine, planes, and even the internet came from military roots, Unmanned Aerial Systems (as civil industry prefers to call the peaceful variety) have to bear the burden of past lives as cutting edge military tech before coming into civilian use. In some ways, they’re in the position of the kid that always got picked on at school. Or Microsoft. Or all sides of Australian politics. Basically, UAVs have an image problem.
While understandable, it is also a little surprising. Many of us used to dream of owning (and thanks to those $40 shopping mall jobbies, probably now do own) an RC helicopter. These little model-sized flying devices often do little more than rotor up and fly a few metres away, but they’re cheap, fun, and relatively harmless. You can tell when a technology has become commonplace: it’s when you can crash it into a wall and laugh about it, instead of sobbing over a $2500 pile of burning steel and plastic.
The problem now, though, is that thanks to modular design, miniaturised devices like cameras and GPS, and of course the ever declining prices of sophisticated electronics and flight tech, it’s a very short step from the little helicopter to the slightly larger, but significantly more sophisticated distance-travelling, photo-taking, highly manoeuvrable UAV.