What is the State of Current Drone Technology?

Where drone design and production stands today.

What is the State of Current Drone Technology?

Drone design and production possibly began in Italy in 1849, when Venice was fighting to free itself from the Austrian Empire. During this war, Austrian soldiers loyal to the Hapsburg emperor launched balloons filled with hot-air, helium, or hydrogen and loaded them with bombs to drop on their Italian enemies.

Given the technology of the time, it is unlikely that these ‘drones’ were very successful. So, it took until 1918 before further experimental drone designs were made.

Called the Kettering Bug, the U.S. Army built an unmanned ‘flying bomb’ aircraft which was radio-controlled from the ground. It was a drone which was never used in combat.

From those early days of innovative thinking an industry has been born.

Following significant investment and fresh invention, modern drones would fascinate those early designers, just as the latest advances in drone technology do today.

Unmanned aerial vehicle technology has examined all aspects of drone manufacture, from the aerodynamics and materials used in its construction to its power system, circuit boards, chipset, and software. This has enabled drones with longer flight times, larger payloads, faster speeds, and longer ranges than ever before.

More recently, highly advanced drones for public use, such as the DJI Mavic 3, Mavic Air, Phantom 4 Pro, and Inspire 2 have shown not only the elevated levels of customer demand, but also the variety of design and production that is currently available.

Drone Usage

From the earliest days of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the inhospitable terrain and a hard-to-find enemy made the use of drones essential for the war on terror.

Twenty years forward and the war in Ukraine has shown how far drone technology has come. Whether it is launching a precision missile attack, dropping a single hand grenade on a trench position, or performing intelligence work behind enemy lines to discover troop movements, drones have found a clear and firm role in modern warfare.

However, beyond the battlefield, drones have an extensive list of applications, such as precision farming, border control, search and rescue, forestry management, aerial photography, security, and potentially home delivery.

Limitations in Current Drone Design

Typical design issues are that the battery/fuel is excessively heavy or that the motors/propellers are inefficient, or both.

The majority of drones in today’s market are constructed of lightweight materials. However, adding a motor/engine and a battery/fuel tank drastically increases weight, which decreases the amount of payload the drone can carry and shortens flight or mission time.

Consequently, many drone designers are looking to nanotechnology as a way to lighten a drone’s structure.

Carbon nanotubes are some of the smallest raw materials available. They measure as little as one ten-thousandth (1/10,000) the diameter of a human hair, yet are also some of the strongest materials known to science.

They can be easily blended with other raw materials used in drone production, such as plastics and carbon fibres. Doing so, enables the nanomaterials to impart their properties of strength and low weight to other drone components – resulting in reduced overall weight and a stronger superstructure.

Nanomaterials can also provide scratch, chemical, and impact resistance, and can modify electro-conductivity for use in protecting satcom antennas and other technical equipment.

Due to weight, space, and noise issues, batteries and basic electric motors are more common than liquid fuels and complex combustion engines. Other design options include employing a parachute to steady and halt a drone's descent or using a solid rocket booster to quickly launch it into the air. Rocket boosters and chutes can always be jettisoned once no longer needed. A further alternative efficiency is to launch a drone from a tethered inflatable to gain instant height without using precious battery power.

For a long time, researchers and scientists have looked to the skies as a way to gain intelligence, solve logistical issues, deliver product, kill the enemy, or save lives. With improved technological know-how and modern materials, the future of drone design and production has never looked more promising. Such that the drones may be as common as tomorrow, as the microchips that surround our world today.

Photo credit: Bertrand Bouchez on Unsplash, Erik Odiin, D Koi, DJI Agras on Pixabay, & Pexels