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A Brief History and Design Overview

Tomorrow Lab
June 2014

The intent of this document is to give a brief history and overview
of drone technology from a design and engineering perspective,
allowing the reader to better understand drones and their potential
application for their own project or interest.
Buzz has been humming around drones in recent years. These
unmanned aircraft have applications that range from governmental
surveillance and defense, to hobbyist experimentation, to consumer
products and beyond.
Below is a Google Trend Search of a rapid increase of the word
drone in the worlds web searches since the year 2004.

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson



So what is a drone? The term refers to an unmanned aerial
vehicle (UAV), remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), or unmanned
aerial system (UAS), which have been in existence since the
1930s. Interest in remotely-maneuverable, pilot-less missile
and bomb carriers began after WWI. Throughout WWII,
technological improvements were made around their flight
methods and radio communication capabilities.
In our post-9/11 era, and with the War on Terror, the word
drone often references unmanned missile launching and
surveillance aircraft, bringing negative connotations of warfare,
weapons, and killer robots. Domestic surveillance already
exists, whether we know about it or not, and one need not be
living in a foreign war region to feel the threat of drones. By
2013, the FAA (who regulates airspace usage) had already
issued almost 1,500 permits for domestic drones to take flight
in the US. While most of these permits were granted to federal
agencies, law enforcement, and universities, the exact permit
holders are unknown to the public leading to concern.
On a lighter note, hobbyists and Do-It-Yourself communities
have been having fun with RC aircrafts for some time now.
The drone term in these communities refers to the small,
inexpensive aircraft built to enable everything from aerial
photography to indoor levitating robotics. The ease of sharing
information over the internet, coupled with the ease of ordering
parts and supplies globally, has made UAV technology
accessible to the casual drone enthusiast.

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson

April 13, 2014, German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung

Interest is not limited to the military and the individual

hobbyist, as now even consumer-facing businesses are
pursuing the use of drones to help gather data, streamline
operations, or sell as products themselves. Recently, Google
bought Titan Aerospace, maker of long-life solar-powered
drones, in order to gather high-altitude imagery. Facebook
acquired Ascenta to bring internet to the third-world. Amazon
is planning to deliver packages by UAVs within a few years, if
legislation permits.
As of now it may be considered reckless endangerment
a misdemeanor crime to fly a radio controlled (RC)
aircraft in public space, as it may pose a threat to others or
cause damage to property. Until more clear laws governing
use of airspace for drones are passed, the FAA must review
situations on a case-by-case basis.


Four main classes along with hybrid designs exist including: Fixed-wing, Helicopters/multi-rotors, Lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles,
and Ornithopters.


The selection in aircraft type is highly dependent upon the task the vehicle is to perform. Each vehicle type relies on a different
type of propulsion to become airborne and maneuver in 3D space, and offers different potential uses.

Fixed Wing

Lighter Than Air



Plane, Geobat, Glider

Dirigible, Aerostat, Blimp

Helicopter, Multi-rotor

Long-distance Flight Surveillance

Short-distance Flight Surveillance

Biomimetic Research

Heavy Payload Transport

Light Payload Transport

Environmental Studies

Large-scale Photography


Hovering & Static Photography

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


Planes, Geobats, and Gliders
The maneuverability and stability of fixed wing vehicles
is highly dependent on the shape and orientation of the
wings, creating various types of wing shapes, sizes,
and applications for use. For example, aircrafts used for
photography/surveillance tend to have longer wings that
are angled upward and sit higher on the aircraft to increase
their stability when the orientation changes. Meanwhile,
military drones and acrobatic vehicles tend to have shorter
wings that are swept backward.
In general, the more stable an aircraft, the less
maneuverable. The fixed wing-style of drones comprise a
majority of government drone aircraft.

Titan Aerospace, recently acquired by Google

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


Planes, Geobats, and Gliders

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson

Graphic Source: Ruben Pater



Dirigibles, Aerostats, and Blimps
Lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles are the simplest type of
aircraft for a drone. The lift of a LTA vehicle is controlled via
the difference in the density between the gas stored within
a bladder on the vehicle. To move the drone vertically,
the density of the internal gas needs to be changed either
through a heat transfer into or away from the gas. This
change compresses or decompresses the gas into smaller
volumes, therefore controlling the lift.
Since the lift depends only on the above relationship, the
vehicle is highly stable. All other controls are managed
through fans, like with dirigibles, or rely on wind currents at
different altitudes, such as with hot air balloons.

YARB 1.0
The Android console for YARB (and
other Surveyor robots) is an open
source project.
Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


Helicopters and Multi-rotors including Quadcopters
Two main types of rotorcraft exist including: helicopters
andmulti-rotor vehicles. Generally, their uses are the
same, and lift is generated by reaction to the trust of one or
more rotating propellers. However, the mechanism behind
multi-rotors is much more robust and much less complex
compared to that of a helicopter.


Quadcopters remain very popular among enthusiasts

as they are easily maneuvered and stabilized due to the
four motors. Shown to the right is the SkyJack, which
autonomously seeks out, hacks, and wirelessly takes over
drones in wifi distance.
Some companies have taken cues from the RC hobby
market, developing easy-to-use products that might cater
to them or any interested individual. A French handsfree communication accessories company, Parrot, has
the Bebop drone; a quadcopter available for $300 that
includes on-board camera streaming video through wifi,
and can be controlled remotely on phone or tablet. Helipal,
an online RC hobby store, also sells ready-to-fly personal
drones like the SteadiDrone EI8HT, a kit bringing drone
technology to cinematography.

Parrots Bebop drone

SteadiDrone EI8HT with HD digital camera

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


Bird-like Drone Technology
Ornithopters are flapping-wing aircrafts which resemble
the natural motion of birds or insects. Simple ones use
wound up rubber bands to actuate the gears, others are
The ornithopter design has only recently become more
common place as technology improves. University
professors and students are researching and creating
robotics which mimic nature. Generally ornithopters are
used in environmental research studies as the robot
bio-mimicry allows it to get closer to subjects without
frightening them. However, due to their weight restrictions,
current technology does not allow them to handle any
significant mass.

UC Berkely Robotics

Private companies, often with hefty military/defense grants,

push the envelope with micro-aerial vehicles. The TechJect
dragonfly (bottom right) is a military-backed project,
now successfully funded through Indiegogo, that can
independently vary wing pitch and height for maneuvering
that resembles actual dragonfly flight in a pocket-size.

TECHJET Dragonfly

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


LTA - Lighter Than Air vehicles
RPA - Remotely Piloted Aircraft
UAS - Unmanned Aerial System
UAV - Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Authors: Natasha Owczarek & Chris Pagano. Editors: Ted Ullrich, Shelby Thompson


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