WASHINGTON -- On December 10, 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to protest electoral fraud and demand political change. Little did they know that they would be accompanied by a UFO.
A mysterious flying craft, hovering high above the river abutting Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, distracted a number of the protesters. Their pictures of the object, darting among the snowflakes, soon caught fire on social media. Alien aficionados suggested it was a sign from beyond.
In reality, the object consisted of a German-made engine, Chinese-made rotors, and other parts from a local department store, all pieced together according to a readily available design. The result was a simple unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone, perfect for suspending a camera in the air to take shots of the action below.
In a few years' time, experts say, people will be less inclined to mistake UAVs hovering over cities like Moscow for UFOs. Thanks to recent advances and cost reductions in GPS and autopilot technology and an accompanying surge in the development and manufacture of small, nonmilitary crafts, drones are taking off.
"We know [of drones] in the military context, with massive aircraft like the Predator and Global Hawk, but there are also tiny ones that weigh just a couple of pounds are basically model airplanes that have just had an autopilot installed," says Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of the U.S.-based technology magazine "Wired" and a widely recognized expert on drones. "Those autopilots used to cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but thanks to, basically, the chips that are in your smartphone, they're now available for just a couple hundred dollars. As a result, all those model airplanes or helicopters out there can be turned into drones with the simple introduction of a cheap board."
A 3D Robotics drone factory (Photo courtesy of Misha Gravenor/Wired)
Anderson estimates that worldwide, amateur drones today number in the tens of thousands. DIY Drones, his online community of enthusiasts and builders, now has nearly 30,000 members. Anderson says that 3D Robotics, a company he cofounded, has shipped more than 10,000 autopilots and other drone parts from its factories -- by his count, sending more of the crafts into the sky than the U.S. military.
On The Rise
While the availability of small drones spells fun for hobbyists today, it also spells practical innovation and big business tomorrow.
In the United States, which leads the world in the development and procurement of drones capable of targeting terrorists, only about 300 federal permits for the crafts have been issued to nonmilitary organizations.
But a new law enacted in February instructs the Federal Aviation Administration to allow for the "safe integration" of more drones into the U.S. skies. Under the legislation, police and first responders will be able to use the crafts as long as they are lightweight and fly below 400 feet (122 meters). Drones for other purposes will be officially cleared to join them by October 2015.
Experts say that means more drones for shooting movies, dusting crops, monitoring air pollution, showing real estate, and tracking everything from wildlife to stolen vehicles. Potential humanitarian uses of drones include delivering medicine or even creating temporary communication networks after natural disasters.
Journalism could also make use of the technology.
One of AirPano's photos from above the Moscow demonstration in December 2011
Sergey Semyonov is the Moscow-based project coordinator at AirPano
, which has photographed many of the world's landmarks from above. It was his team that assembled and sent the drone that was temporarily mistaken for a UFO to the December protest in Moscow.
"After this event, we realized that it was political and that it was extremely important and popular in the press at that time," Semyonov says. "A lot of newspapers were calling us and said, 'You did unique photo-shooting in this place. Tell us about it. Please give us some photos.' We really didn't expect that."
'Less Positive Uses'
Drones for more complex missions, of course, would not usually be made by do-it-yourself engineers but by aerospace companies, eager for new revenue sources as the war in Afghanistan draws down. According to estimates, the U.S. drone industry, currently valued at around $6 billion annually, will nearly double over the next decade. The industry in China and other countries is also on the rise. Much of the growth is expected to come from law enforcement's use of the crafts.
A Hermes 500 UAV flies over the Hatzerim air force base in southern Israel's Negev desert in 2011.
The prospect of cheap technology and a manufacturing boom has also raised concerns, both about potential privacy violations with increased surveillance and the potential for terrorist use.
Experts like John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, acknowledge that some of the concerns are real but say the positives outweigh the negatives.
"Any new technology shakes things up a bit in terms of regulation and legislation and managing it and balancing what are usually the overwhelming benefits against a very small number of less positive uses. We've seen that with the Internet, for example," Villasenor says. "I think UAVs will be similar in the sense that the overwhelming majority of applications will be beneficial."