To be valuable as a situational awareness tool in critical infrastructure protection applications, a drone needs to be: (a) fitted with one or more sensors (cameras, microphones, chemical or radioactivity detectors, etc.), and (b) networked into an operations center or a single-user device so that its activities can be directed and monitored in real time. By extending the user's reach into remote and confined spaces, these winged robots create new possibilities for surveillance, reconnaissance, investigations, forensics, and search and rescue. And also for outbound missions such as interdiction, delivery, and remote communication.
The tinier they get, the more advantages they offer in being hard to detect and able to enter small and confined spaces, as well as spaces too dangerous for people to go into. They are also extremely inexpensive to operate. According to a January, 2014 article in the International Business Times: "The average nano drone costs about $25 per hour to run, in comparison to manned helicopters and planes, which can cost between $600 to $20,000 per hour"
There are some downsides as well, though. Their small form factor makes them highly vulnerable to sudden gusts of wind and collisions with all manner of things including other aircraft (large and small) and people. If they lose network connectivity, it's game over. The vehicles, their onboard controllers and sensors, and their supporting networks will be targets for cyber attacks. And if detected by an adversary, they could be disabled or shot down very easily. Swatted like flies, basically.
Some applications for small- and nano-sized drones in the critical infrastructure protection space include deployment to:
- Events in progress or their aftermath, e.g. public disturbances, crimes and terrorist attacks, and natural or man-made disasters ... collapsed mines, melted nuclear reactors (some of these may be one-way trips).
- Sporting events, VIP appearances, political rallies, and other situations where hundreds or thousands of people gather.
- Railway tracks, yards, bridges, and tunnels; communications and power lines, wind farms, etc. to discover faulty and damaged assets, intrusions by people or animals, etc.
- Border areas to patrol for immigration violations
- Lakes, reservoirs, rivers and oceans to test for pollutants.
- Ranches, farms and forests for issues with animal herds and crops, as well as unwanted intrusions.
I'm sure you can think of some that I've missed ... there's a ton of opportunity for innovation here.
I won't even get into the privacy implications of this technology (out of scope for this blog) other than to say that privacy as we know it is truly dead and buried, and here's the proof.
I've gathered a few videos here of small drones (basically your quadcopters) and nano drones (those small enough to fit in the palm of your hand) .
1. SMALL DRONES
Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk
DJI Phantom Quadcopter
2. VERY SMALL DRONES
The Black Hornet (with apologies for the annoying narrator)
The Hummingbird Drone (a DARPA funded project)
The Hubsan X4 H107D