Should we be engineering drones?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as ‘drones,’ and their various military applications have been a topic of interest amongst defence engineers for some time now. Taking on missions deemed too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for aircraft to be piloted, drones are already widely in use by the United States military, despite have sparked considerable controversy within the media.

Last year, the UK’s airspace regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), announced that drones could also be taking to the skies across Britain by 2022. However, there are a number of hurdles to overcome before such theories might be put into practice, many of which are likely to prompt the question, ‘Should we be engineering drones?’

The responsibility of ensuring that UK drones are both safe and trustworthy rests largely in the hands of engineers. After all, having drones which are equipped for military action operating in civil airspace can be an unnerving prospect, as well as one which carries numerous privacy implications. Designing and building UAVs which are able to appease public trepidation whilst continuing to function effectively will no doubt present a number of engineering challenges, as well as the creation of many new job roles.

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A total of £17 million has already been allocated to the development of Europe’s first centre for flying and testing drones, as has almost 500 square miles of countryside near the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. Improvements in flight stability is one aspect which is likely to become a priority within advanced drone developments, with proportional integral derivative (PID) controllers already in use as a means of addressing potential issues. However, with further research and developments, more sophisticated engineering solutions and architectures are expected to come into play.

US-based market analysis company, Teal Group, last year predicted that the market for manufacturing drones would “continue as the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry”. With the implication being that the impact of this growth will also be felt on British shores, it is not difficult to see how drone development might also extend beyond defence purposes. Teal Group’s research also indicated that “spending will almost double over the next decade, from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totalling just over $89 billion in the next 10 years.”

With so much set to be invested in drones over the coming years, this is certain to remain one of the most innovative aspects of the engineering industry, as the range of UAV possibilities continue to be explored. Whilst drones could certainly continue to play vital role within defence procedures, there is already plenty of speculation as to how these unmanned aircrafts might be engineered for a range of other uses, such as patrolling boarders, dusting crops and even redefining the UK’s postal service. Despite the technical restrictions and strict regulations which are likely to govern initial design developments, drones could certainly offer the opportunity for UK aerospace and defence engineers to take a pioneering approach in utilising this particular technology.

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