Man and Machine

By Maximilian Beck

BOLOGNA — Replacing the inefficiencies of man with the efficiencies of a machine has been a fascination since the dawn of time, and robotics represents the most completing step to date with significant advances being made in unmanned flight.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have been developed for decades by the military. This trend comes as rising fuel prices and the increasing costs of safeguarding the pilot have led to increased allocation of research and development funds to improving unmanned flight. UAVs have become so popular because they offer militaries capabilities such as increased flight duration, surveillance, precision and diversity at a lower financial and human cost. For reasons of intelligence gathering alone, UAVs have established a new niche in military arsenals around the globe and ignited an arms race. More than 75 countries now have similar robotics programs.

These advances began trickling down to the private sector as it saw advantages to the technology for commercial purposes. Since then, R&D spending has shifted from the military budget to the private sector. Commercial drones act as flying security cameras for companies around the world, gather data for botanical gardens and deliver packages for Amazon. All this is made possible because processing power has increased drastically while production costs have fallen.

Besides the financial cost advantage, a UAV also offers significant advantages to personnel. The pilot and the crew are in safety, often thousands of kilometers away from the drone. Currently, drones can stay airborne for days as it is not hindered by the physical needs of a pilot. With technology such as solar cells, there are prototypes that could stay airborne for months or even years. This is one reason why they are used for intelligence gathering for police or surveying oil pipelines in remote places. Additionally, they are equipped with various sensors that allow for ground operators to follow live-streams of what the drone sees. This has been used by NGOs to map the conflict in South Sudan or reduce poaching across African countries.

This has just highlighted some of the advantages that drones offer to the commercial sector. Although the technology has garnered attention and initial funding for a military purpose, the vast majority of innovation takes place in the private sector. Their usage will surely expand in the future as the technology keeps evolving.

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