An unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly shortened to UAV, is an aircraft that can be operated without the need for a human pilot aboard. Generally known as ‘drones,’ these aircraft can be either fully or partially autonomous—they are either controlled remotely by a human pilot or autonomously by onboard computers. Autonomous drones are controlled by sensors, global positioning systems (GPS), embedded systems, and pre-programmed flight plans. The size of a drone varies based on application and other factors. An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) includes a UAV, a remote ground-based control mechanism, and a means of communication between the two.
UAVs can fly without the onboard presence of pilots. This is achieved through advanced aircraft components, sensor payloads, and normally, a ground control station that controls onboard equipment. When a UAV is remotely controlled from the ground, it is called a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV). Dedicated control systems require reliable wireless communication capabilities to ensure uninterrupted UAV control.
A UAV is powered by a reciprocating or jet engine. UAVs usually fall into six functional categories; namely, target and decoy (providing a target for ground and aerial gunnery), reconnaissance (providing battlefield intelligence), combat (providing attack capabilities for high-risk missions), logistics (delivering cargo), research and development (for making better UAV technologies), and civil and commercial UAVs.
Today, UAVs are integrated with advanced computing technology that has replaced analog controls, including microcontrollers, system-on-a-chip (SOC), and single-board computers (SBC). The applications of UAVs include warfare, surveillance, and reconnaissance. However, the use of UAVs is also expanding in commercial, scientific, recreational, and agricultural areas for activities such as law enforcement, product deliveries, aerial photography, civilian use, and drone racing.
Applications of UAVs include:
- Civilian drones are used for recreation, disaster relief, archeology, conservation of biodiversity and habitat, and law enforcement
- Commercial UAVs are used for aerial surveillance, filmmaking, journalism, scientific research, surveying, cargo transport, mining, transmission and distribution, forestry, and agriculture
- Military and aerospace UAVs are used for reconnaissance, attack, demining, and target practice
Notable military UAV manufacturers include General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, CASC, and Mariner Systems (UK) Ltd. Leading civilian drone manufacturers include DJI, Parrot, and 3DRobotics. Compared to the military UAV market, the civilian UAV segment is new. Many UAV companies are emerging in both developed and developing nations, where they have received funding, research and training aid, and other support from investors, government agencies, universities, and private entities. Some private companies even offer online and in-person training programs for recreational and commercial UAVs. Consumer drones are used for military applications as well due to their cost-effective nature. Large, sensor-enabled drones may soon be introduced in the cargo and passenger UAV categories. Smarter agricultural drones are also being developed in the food production and farmland segments. The future of the UAV market is largely driven by advances in autonomous technologies.