Drones: State of the technology (Watts)

Watts’ overview of drones is one of those “this is where we’re at right now” articles providing a closer look at the various categories of UAVs, their capabilities, advantages and drawbacks, etc. with regards to remote sensing applications. Watts claims that drones will spark a revolution in science similar to that of GIS, a claim which stands up best in a future context wherein drones can fly autonomously, freed of human control, much as satellites and a good portion of a standard commercial aircraft flight already are. To me, this is the difference between an evolutionary step (improving unmanned flying systems, which have existed for quite some time) and a revolutionary step (replacing paper maps with layers on a computer; expanding by untold orders of magnitude the amount of information that can be represented, and introducing automated data manipulation).

Watts also overviews the regulatory environment, which, as is the case with so many other rapidly-evolving technologies, struggles to keep up and risks either stymying innovation or permitting dangerous risks. While drones have potential in many areas, Watts is focused on remote sensing research, which is generally carried out by public institutions like universities. For now, as he mentioned, commercial use of drones remains prohibited in fall 2015–notwithstanding exceptions granted to Google and Amazon to test cargo-delivery models in defined airspace. Therefore, expect this limitation to change.

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