Innovations in design, engineering, materials, communications and manufacturing technologies have led to the development of increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with impressive capabilities, improved safety, greater reliability and lower costs. An unmanned aerial system consists of an unmanned aircraft (UAV) or drone along with the communications and remote piloting equipment necessary to control flight and function. UAVs can have a wide variety of sizes, configurations, power systems, payloads and costs, and can be either remotely controlled or programmed to have semi-autonomous functions. Originally designed exclusively for military ISR missions to reduce casualties and as an alternative to expensive air support systems, UAS are increasingly being deployed for business purposes.
The explosive growth of UAS for both commercial and military use reflects their technological evolution, which is approaching that of manned aircraft. In the military, their use has expanded into battlefield operations, including weapons delivery. One revolutionary aerospace technology on the UAS horizon is “drone swarming,” the coordination of multiple autonomous drones with the ability to communicate with each other and alter their behavior to operate collectively in performing a task.
On the civilian front, fully autonomous flight is closer to becoming a reality with the rollout of real-time 5G wireless data communications. Developments in wireless communications as well as AI technologies will also allow last-mile drone package delivery services to become feasible and mainstream. The FAA and other agencies are in the process of addressing the regulatory challenges with the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system.