A Drone By Any Another Name

Input Voltage

–Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

JeffHeadShot

For over a decade before I joined the Circuit Cellar team, I was Chief Editor of a magazine that covered embedded computing technologies used in military systems. At that publication, I naturally wrote and edited a lot of articles about UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Just as am now, I was very particular about terminologies and what they represent. And one word I quite adamantly wouldn’t allow used in that magazine was “drone.” Back then I didn’t like the term for a number of reasons. First, drone is a word that implies mindlessness or lack of intelligence. To me that didn’t feel right when covering military UAVs, because they typically embedded massive amounts of computing. Large military UAVs like the Global Hawk even had full backplanes of FPGA-based boards to do processing of imaging data and other functions. A second reason is that within the defense electronics industry, UAV was the term preferred over drone. Drone was what the unknowing, non-industry public called them—the word used for them in news stories. Most news stories using the word drone were—often justifiably—bad news.

So, for those reasons I banished any use of the word drone in that publication—at least I did before a change started happening in drone world. It’s important to understand that there are very few areas where the defense industry is ahead of the commercial industry. One exception, however, is UAVs—for many years the defense industry was way out ahead of the commercial world in UAV technology and development activity.

But around 2014 or 2015 a shift happened where biggest growth area for drone technology became dominated by commercial/civil unmanned platforms. Within that the largest chunk is the huge number of small hobbyist kinds of air vehicles. But as commercial uses blossomed for drones—ranging from film making to agriculture to construction and more—the drone market morphed toward a multi-billion-dollar market.

With that trend happening, I softened my stance, and I did start using the term drone when referring to consumer and commercial drones. And I knew that the defense electronics industry in this day and age has to keep tabs on the consumer technology market, because that’s where the rapid innovations happen. It’s too soon to tell what impact the rapid growth of the commercial/consumer drone industry will have on the defense side of drone technology. And since most (but not all) military drones are fixed-wing and commercial drones are mostly (but not all) rotary-wing, they may continue down separate paths. But it will be important for the defense industry to keep its eyes on where commercial drone technology is going.

Interestingly, this transition from defense to commercial also played out in the tradeshow realm. When I was at that military publication, the AUVSI Unmanned Systems show was a key event that I attended every year—this was even before they shifted to the new name Xponential and then to AUVSI Xponential. That show was dominated by companies marketing to the defense UAV market, along with all the defense primes (their customers). But in the 2014/2015 time frame, that show transitioned to where the number of consumer and commercial drone companies exhibiting began to be in the majority, and that’s been its direction ever since. While that wasn’t a positive trend for me when I was covering defense technologies, it’s very much welcome for me here on Circuit Cellar.

I have to be honest, writing about consumer and commercial drones is way more fun than covering military drone technology. As I’ve said before in this column, drone technology fascinates me partly because it represents one of the clearest examples of an application that wouldn’t exist without today’s level of chip integration driven by Moore’s law. That high level of integration has enabled 4k HD video capture, image stabilization, new levels of autonomy and even highly compact supercomputing to fly aboard today’s commercial and consumer drones. I’m looking forward to attending this year’s AUVSI Xponential event in Chicago, and next month I’ll be sure to share with you my thoughts about what I saw there. And as far as my objections to the word drone? Clearly, I’m over it.

This appears in the April 345 issue of Circuit Cellar magazine

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