Guest Post: Drones Over Your Head – Part 2

September 6, 2020

author Nidhi Kamra

To learn more about Nidhi Kamra, visit her website.

Welcome to STEMinism Sunday! As a former woman in science, I have a deep and enduring interest in the experiences and representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This series will be an opportunity for me – and you – to learn more about these intellectual badasses. Today, we have the second of two guest posts from Nidhi Kamra. To read Part 1, click here.

D for Dangerous

While selecting a drone, it is imperative to first define the mission. Missions fall under the Ds category – for example, Dull, Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult, Dash, Delivery etc.  ‘Dull,’ synonymous with ‘boring,’ is exactly that – a mission that would have long endurance (many hours to days), like surveying a forest or urban area. A dirty mission would involve dealing with spraying pesticides, detecting chemical agents, radiation exposure etc. Dangerous missions are a lot of what the military is involved with, for example rescuing people from a war zone, fire etc. Based on the type of D, and several other factors, a drone must be selected that will perform the job best. Examples of more missions include providing telecommunications’ infrastructure, news broadcasts, hostage situation monitoring, crowd control when people go wild at a concert, building security, poaching detection, climatology, warfare etc.

Pick Your Drone

Once the mission is defined, picking the right drone is key. Most drones are either fixed wing (like an airplane where the wings are fixed), or rotary (like a helicopter where the wings are attached to one or more rotors and move). A mission that requires hovering over an area, perhaps to pick up or lower a parcel, is the job of a rotary drone because rotary drones can hover. If the mission requires monitoring pipelines by flying along the pipeline, a fixed wing drone would be a better option since these drones have longer endurance.

If your mission is to fly a drone for fun, there are many types available at hobby and electronics stores at affordable prices. Just attach a video camera and use it to capture bird’s-eye views of landscapes on your next vacation!

Drones can be classified based on size, endurance, capability etc. The Department of Defence categorizes them in groups based on weight, altitude and speed. The US Airforce classifies them in tiers, depending on if the drones are LALE (Low Altitude Long Endurance), MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance), HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) etc.  Drones will generally fall within categories inside the following parameters:

  • Weight: less than 250 grams to over 1000 kg
  • Range: distance is less than 10 km to over 2000 km
  • Altitude: flying height is 150 m to over 20 km
  • Endurance: flies continuously for less than one hour to a couple of days

If you own a hobby or toy drone, it’s likely a Micro or Mini UAV, weighing less than 25 kg (Or a few grams!), with endurance less than two hours, range less than ten kilometres, and chances are, you don’t have a license for it (though in most cases you should).

Here are some examples of cool drones:

DJI’s Spark mini drone can be launched from your palm, flown via hand gestures, and is the perfect companion for the selfie lover in you – you can take a selfie by making a square with your fingers!

This NAV (Nano Air Vehicle) was developed by AeroVironment. It looks and flies like a hummingbird. Drones that resemble and fly like birds are using “biomimicry.” The Hummingbird is equipped with a “spy camera” and can fly indoors and outdoors. It weighs less than one AA battery, and will only cost you pocket change — $4 million (though it’s not for sale to the general public).

Boeing’s Phantom Eye is a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drone. It is designed for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (S&R), and communications missions. It has an endurance of four (or ten) days at an altitude of 65,000 ft. Since it cruises above the stratosphere, it is uninterrupted by turbulence, storms, and other aircraft.

NASA’s X-43A was a hypersonic drone, meaning it flew faster than the speed of sound. It was designed to fly up to 10 Mach. If an aircraft flies at the speed of sound, the Mach number = 1 and it is called a transonic flight. The speed of sound is about 343 metres per second. The X-43A holds a Guinness world record for speed. It was designed to test various aspects of hypersonic flights. These drones were not designed to land, and subsequent test versions of this drone crashed intentionally into the ocean.


While your hobby drone can be launched from the ground or your palm, some other drones are launched in different ways, depending on their design, mission, and performance characteristics. Some examples of launching methods are:

  • Conventional Launch: This is a runway launch and is the same as that of a passenger airplane, wherein the plane reaches a minimum airspeed and “takes-off” from a runway. A runway can be as small as your kitchen dining table, or as big as that in an airport. The drone requires energy from fuel or batteries to conduct a conventional launch.
  • Vertical Takeoff: These drones launch vertically like a helicopter, with the help of thrust, a force that allows the drone to lift. One advantage of vertical takeoff is no runway is required.
  • Catapult Launch: A catapult-like launcher is used to launch the drone with the help of bungee (elastic) cords. A catapult launcher can also be hydraulic (using oil and gas) or pneumatic (using pressurized gas) to assist with the launch. Since this type of launch is assisted, the drone’s battery or fuel is not used much for the launch process, and no big runway is required. This launch is perfect for landscapes that have a rough terrain.
  • Car or Boat Launch: When the vehicle or boat achieves the required takeoff speed, the drone is released. This method is again suitable in situations where there is no proper runway.
  • Air Launch: This launch method has a sci-fi flare to it. It involves “dropping down” drones from a host ship in the air at a considerable altitude. In this article, you can see a photo of drones called “Gremlins” (being built by a company called Dynetics) being dropped out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft to perform a specific mission. Once their mission is complete, these drones can be collected mid-air by the same aircraft.

Here’s a cool video of a catapult launch of the RQ-7 Shadow Reconnaissance drone:



Like launch methods, there are several recovery (landing) methods for drones. The usual ones are conventional (like an airplane) and vertical recovery (like a helicopter). Some other interesting examples are:

  • Net and Cable-Assisted Recovery: Think of net recovery as scoring a goal in soccer wherein the ball lands in a net. Similarly, the drone is automatically guided to fly right into the net! With cable-assisted recovery, the drone gets stuck in a cable that helps it stop. These recovery methods are beneficial where there is no suitable landing area.
  • Parachute Recovery: In this method, a parachute is deployed by the drone and assists with slow landing speeds.

Don’t Monkey Around!

Before you venture into Droneland, check your country’s policies for drones to ensure you are flying safely and legally, as well as to avoid heavy penalties. Depending on your country, different organizations define regulations and policies for drone operators.

In Canada, Transport Canada asks operators to review the rules in the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) document before flying a drone for the first time.

Some points to note are:

  • Drone pilots must have a pilot certificate and only fly drones that are registered
  • A drone weighing less than 250 grams does not require a registration or pilot’s certificate. 250 grams is one and a half times as heavy as a hockey puck. Anything over 250 grams requires a license.
  • Children less than 14 years of age must be supervised
  • Children over 14 years of age can get a basic license, while those over 16 can get an advanced license
  • Your drone should always be visible
  • The drone should not exceed an altitude of 400 feet. That is about two times as high as the Cinderella castle in the Magic Kingdom (Disney World, Florida), or one fifths as tall as the CN tower in Toronto.
  • Do not operate the drone less than 100 feet from another person. That is five times as tall as a giraffe.
  • Don’t fly the drone in restricted areas like airports
  • Don’t fly if you are unfit in any way
  • Operate in open space, away from buildings, wildlife, obstruction, hazards etc.

To ensure you are complying with all the rules, visit the CARs website.

Well, that’s all for now, folks. Hopefully it didn’t all fly over your head. Perhaps next time you see a hummingbird, a bee, or a bat, you may be inspired to design your own drone, as long as you don’t use it to spy on your neighbour. But till then, be safe and have fun in Droneland!

For more information:

BBC News – Google Wing launches first home delivery drone service

Wide Awake Films – Benefits of Using Drones to Capture Video

Airpower Journal – Spring 1991 – Unmanned Ariel Vehicles

PenState College of Earth and Mineral Sciences – Classification of the Unmanned Aerial Systems

The Atlantic – Robot Hummingbird Drone Is Military’s Latest Spy Toy

Boeing – High Altitude Long Endurance

Dynetics – The Gremlins program Fact Sheet

Canadian Aviation Regulations

Designing Unmanned Aircraft Systems by Jay Gundlach

The Measure of Things

Nidhi Kamra is a picture book author. She currently has two titles under her name: Ten Sheep to Sleep, and recently released, Simon’s Skin. Her books can be purchased on Amazon and other online book stores.

You can also learn more about Nidhi Kamra on her website, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

2 Comments on ‘Guest Post: Drones Over Your Head – Part 2’

  1. I think that we will see drones used a lot in future for things like caribou and moose population surveys in the north. We would have flown 50 hrs fixed-wing followed by 50 hrs helicopter – probably around $150,000-$200,000 now for a moose population or caribou herd. I spent much of my young life in Cessnas and Bell 206s flying around….

    Reply | 
    1. Drones would be so much cheaper and less invasive!

      Reply | 

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