When discussing UAS as a whole, it can be very easy to ignore the various industries that contributed to the aircraft we see and use, often brushing it off as “that’s what the engineers are for” or giving all the credit to model aviation. Today we are going to be reaching back to these industries to discuss what we can still learn from them today and create a nexus of the origins and sources of current UAS development.
Many people recognize the Wright Flyer as being one of the first examples of manned aviation, but the origins of “manmade” aviation stretches much further back in history. Some may argue that this started with model aircraft hobbyists but according to the Academy of Model Aviation’s museum in Muncie, Indiana, there are records of people living in ancient Egypt who carved model birds for children to throw. While calling this the beginning may be a bit of a stretch, it goes to show that man has been interested in aviation since the BCE times.
Looking at more modern times, the existence of model aviation before manned aviation is well known and is largely where current UAS can draw their roots from. Much of the structure of current UAS often resembles similar designs from the 60’s and 70’s. This is where we will create the first source on our nexus.
The many connections between manned aviation and model aircraft cannot be ignored. Before doing a full scale test and building the actual aircraft, many aviation companies will build a scale model of their aircraft to perform flight tests. Likewise, many model aircraft have been built from the plans and dimensions of their much larger counterparts often to an amazing level of detail. This search for recreating the smallest details on a model has led to many advancements in building techniques in model aviation which were absorbed into UAS. Modern UAS are also starting to use the same maintenance techniques and legal systems as manned aviation, but we will get to this later.
With only the model aviation and manned aviation industries to stand on, UAS would still look quite primitive which is where material sciences comes into play. Material sciences as a whole are encompassed by many different industries including the automotive and cell phone industries. Without the advancements in material sciences, carbon fiber parts and epoxy resins wouldn’t exist. Commercial UAS would still be constructed from wood and MonoKote or fabric. Material sciences still has a lot longer to go with new materials being created every year.
Finally, we get to part of what makes a UAS different from a model aircraft. Sensors, data analysis, and software are critical components of any modern UAS. Geospatial analysis has been around for a long time through GIS and other systems, but recently it has been getting a lot of attention in the world of UAS. Improvements in the software used to analyze the data gathered by the UAS can yield much more useful pieces of information than can be gathered from simply taking pictures. The current push for open source software also holds further promises for more rapid development in this field. The sensors aboard the UAS are also improving rapidly with new cameras coming out from multiple companies each month. Some sensors are aiming to be small and lightweight like the Sensefly S.O.D.A. or the Parrot Sequoia while others are aiming for higher resolution images like the Micasense Red Edge. Sensor improvements are driving the development of new software to take advantage of them and new techniques for analysis are driving the design of sensors.
Of course, we can’t forget the legal system that this requires. Before UAS went mainstream, model aviation was largely unregulated and flying for pay was allowed for anyone. Now that UAS have drawn the attention of lawmakers and the news, there are regulations in place for commercial operations. While the current regulations allow for enough leeway to do most commercial operations, they still have room for improvement. This will likely be a game of cat and mouse for a long time where UAS advance further than the legal system, forcing portions of the law to be rewritten to allow for industry to grow.
This is an analysis of how UAS looks currently but there is room for more as time goes on. We may see new industries begin to contribute to UAS development over time or other uses that haven’t been thought of yet. Only time will tell.