9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

They're robots. They fly. They're watching you. And they're increasingly found everywhere: Yup, they're drones. You may think you know exactly what they are and what they do. You don't.

Like lots of emerging technologies, drones are often misunderstood, especially early in their existence. To help you navigate our brave new world filled with swooping, buzzing, photo-snapping machines, we reached out to some of the greatest experts in the field. We asked them, what are the most bogus drone myths? What drives you crazy? What do you wish you could shout from the rooftops? Here's what they said.

1. They're not actually called drones, nor quadcopters

Calling them "drones" in the first place is a no-no, according to Vijay Kumar, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. (He's not the only one who thinks so, either.) He and his research team work on aerial robots in his lab.

"The only thing that is drone-like about our robots is that they make a continuous humming sound," Kumar says. "If I was an airforce pilot controlling a remotely piloted vehicle (which is what they are) and you called it a drone, I would be insulted. I can't think of anything in the definition of a drone that is suggestive of what the pilot does. Certainly the characterization the pilot does no work does not do him or her justice."

While we're at it, Kumar also says calling a robot with four rotors a "quadcopter" is "just plain wrong English."

"'Quad' refers to four. 'Copter' is short for helicopter. A quadcopter describes four helicopters. A robot with four rotors is a helicopter, perhaps a quadrotor helicopter. It is not a set of four rotorcrafts."

What should you be calling "drones" -- like the flying robots Kumar and his team make at his lab at Penn -- instead? Kumar says: "The military uses RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles). When the vehicles are autonomous (like ours), they are robots."

2. The biggest danger from drones isn't invasion of privacy

Kumar admits that many people live in fear of camera-equipped drones. But the problem is that the legislation designed to combat these supposed privacy threats doesn't actually deal with how RPVs actually work.

FAA regulations say you can't fly personal drones below 400 feet over personal property. But is keeping drones at, say, 410 feet any less private? Your creepy neighbour leaning over your fence, taking photos with his phone is a bigger threat to your privacy than anything, as well as a more realistic one.

"Do people think about the number of pictures of them on the internet that were taken without their knowledge by smart phones and digital cameras?" Kumar asks. "Can you really prevent drones from taking pictures that [can't already] be obtained on Google Earth?"

9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

Predator UAS

Mary Cummings, associate professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke University, takes the argument a step further.

"It is actually very difficult to make sense out of what a ground control person sees from a drone camera," she says. "It is like looking through a soda straw." The military has the resources and trained personnel to do much more comprehensive surveillance, so she believes you shouldn't worry about some inept peeping tom's personal drone, like the ones we sometimes hear about in the news.

Brendan Schulman, an attorney specializing in laws surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, points out that we don't need special laws to prevent drones from invading our privacy. He says, "People also don't seem to realise that existing laws concerning invasion of privacy, peeping toms, stalking, or unlawful surveillance already apply to the kind of concerns people keep talking about [with drones], so there is no need for an overreaching law specifically targeting drone technology. If someone is actually invading someone's privacy, it is the misconduct that should be unlawful, regardless of the technology used."

But... you should still be a little worried. Not about surveillance, per se, but that like any technology, flying robots can be used for nefarious purposes if they're in the wrong hands.

"Any 'drone' can be hacked by a smart student in an hour," Vijay Kumar points out. "Should we not be worrying about this instead? While the FAA is flogged for not being decisive, they are the only ones thinking seriously about safety. It amazes me that hobbyists can use 'drones' in populated areas, when we need drivers licenses to drive cars."

3. They're not all killing machines

Drones rose to mainstream public consciousness in the last decade as the US started deploying them in conflict zones in the Middle East. This offensive UAV warfare cultivated a bad rap that haunts the 'bots to this day.

"Drones are just a platform that we -- the US -- launch weapons from," Mary Cummings says. "People often want to blame drones for collateral damage in war strikes, but there is no question that drones cause much less collateral damage than if the US military were to use manned aircraft. People want to blame the technology when it is policy that is the real culprit."

9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

A man examining UASes at the International Drone Expo last month in Chiba, Japan. Credit: Getty

4. They can't take down planes

Jet engines accidentally slurping up sky-high drones is unlikely, and the chances of it actually triggering a crash are even smaller.

Attorney Schulman points out that pilots have spotted model aeroplanes in their vicinities for years, but it wasn't until last year that the FAA started requiring pilots and air traffic control to report all drone sightings to a national security system. Of those 190 sightings, Schulman points out that a lot of the media described these incidents as "near misses."

In a lot of these supposed "near misses," Schulman says that many of these sightings were from the ground, or in other situations that didn't pose a risk. In some cases, he says it wasn't even clear if a drone was what pilots sighted. It's unlikely a drone could even reach thousands of feet in the air -- and even if they did, newer models like the Phantom 3 come with geofencing that automatically employs GPS to avoid swooping near airports.

5. You can't hear them coming a mile away

While the name "drone" connotes constant insect-like humming, noisiness isn't a trait you can assign to all flying robots.

"Commercial rotorcraft drones like those from DJI and 3DR are noisy enough, and Bezos has been rumoured to say 'they're too loud' of his current Amazon drones," says Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. His research team at UT was the first to prove that UAVs can be commandeered via GPS signals from an outside source.

"But fixed-wing powered gliders, or rotorcraft in near free fall, can be as silent as a thief in the night," Humphreys says. "This point is relevant for those who hope to detect drones by their acoustic signature, including the Secret Service guarding the White House."

That could be a problem for the companies that already exist who promise to catch suspicious drones by those very acoustic signatures -- that is, the unique sounds that each type of drone emits. Those kind of companies already exist in Japan and the US.

Reducing drone noisiness is one of the main goals in UAV technology: Over in the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds uses a tiny drone with six electric motors to monitor Britain's endangered bird species. The society says that ambient noises like wind drown out the already hushed robot so as to allow the drone to sneak up on the animals.

9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

Steve Roest operating a Shadow Rotor UAV for conservation purposes (via Shadowview Foundation)

6. They don't need a human controlling them

There are lots of stories of supposedly-unsavoury characters getting caught flying drones near sensitive areas, like tourist-filled attractions, from afar. But UAVs are becoming more and more autonomous in every sense of the word. As in, there's no human controlling them. "A UAV may detect a target on the ground and automatically follow or track the motion of the target without involvement of pilot," Hugh Liu says. He's a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies. He just won $US1.65 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to train 150 new experts in using UAVs for a range of tasks, like agricultural and environmental monitoring.

We're already seeing these autonomous capabilities in commercial drone prototypes, like this one that can be programmed to shadow the user automatically. DJI has a drone that allows you to preprogram GPS waypoints you want the 'bot to hit, then let it go into the wild for a self-guided journey. And there's research being done by engineers like Kumar to get drones to automatically follow one another -- like bees or ants in a swarm following each other, or birds flying in formation.

7. They are not toys

While some UAVs are indeed essentially RC toys, most aren't. They're fully-fledged robots, and should be treated as such.

Liu says UAVs are "not just one vehicle," but an "integrated system" chock full of onboard sensors, flight actuators, and more. And like Kumar, Liu prefers the term UAS (unmanned aerial system) over UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

"The obvious example is, when one flies a model aeroplane, it's a fun sport to operate the machine," says Liu. "When this machine is equipped with camera, all of a sudden, we are wowed by the aerial photos. I do prefer to use the term unmanned aerial system (UAS) rather than UAV to indicate this 'system' perspective."

For context: Toys R Us sells an RC toy they call the Sky Viper Camera Drone -- which is clearly different from the robots Liu, Kumar and company are talking about.

9 Misconceptions About Drones That Engineers Wish You'd Shut Up About

A drone assisting with rescue efforts in Nepal after this year's earthquake. Credit: Getty

8. Jamming their signals doesn't take them down

Todd Humphreys says that another myth he runs into a lot is the idea that we can drop drones out of the sky by jamming their communication signals. But he says almost all GPS-guided drones have a failsafe for just such an event called "lost link protocol." This protocol ensures that a jammed drone will automatically guide itself to a safe, predesignated location, which a hacker can't change.

"What's more, drones can be configured to ignore communications from the ground during flight," he explains. "In this mode, no one, not even a legitimate operator, could deter them from executing their mission. This 'I can't hear you' mode might be attractive to vandals or terrorists who want to turn their fixed-wing drone into a home-brew cruise missile. This is essentially how the original drone, the V1 flying bomb, operated."

9. They won't be delivering your mail (or your pizza) anytime soon

Many people think drones will eventually buzz around neighbourhoods and drop packages on stoops like weird flying robotic milkmen. But such a world is still be a way's off.

Mary Cummings says delivery drones can't go very far, and they don't do well at all in bad weather. She says we might see some in the future; but that more likely we'll see them used for search-and-rescue missions. Drones already have already saved lost hikers, for example, and there are plans to deliver medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas or to deliver humanitarian aid in war zones.

But it's not going to be happening quickly. Cummings says: "We need a lot of work in developing new air traffic control paradigms and also making sure this new technology is robust in the face of weather and human ill intent. My seven-year-old would definitely throw rocks at a drone trying to land."



    While we’re at it, Kumar also says calling a robot with four rotors a “quadcopter” is “just plain wrong English.”
    “‘Quad’ refers to four. ‘Copter’ is short for helicopter. A quadcopter describes four helicopters. A robot with four rotors is a helicopter, perhaps a quadrotor helicopter. It is not a set of four rotorcrafts.”

    Should we start calling them Quadropter?

    The word helicopter is adapted from the French language hélicoptère, coined by Gustave Ponton d'Amécourt in 1861, which originates from the Greek helix (ἕλιξ) "helix, spiral, whirl, convolution" and pteron (πτερόν) "wing".

    Last edited 22/06/15 2:17 pm

      Honestly this kind of annoyed me too. I hate the word "drone" because of the negative military connotation but it is technically correct according to the dictionary.

      Also the term quadcopter is just a shortened from of quad rotor helicopter which is perfectly fine.

      When you say things like “just plain wrong English.” it really makes me not respect your grasp of the language.

        "Also the term quadcopter is just a shortened from of quad rotor helicopter which is perfectly fine."

        Exactly! Came to the comments to say the exact same thing

        I own a phantom 3 and it's "totes" my quadcopter (I call him "Andronio Banderas").

    I disagree with a few of these points,
    1. They are called multi-rotors, i have never heard of a quad copter referred to as a RPV in all of the hundreds of You tube videos i have watched. Quad copter or Tri copter are valid terms for them.

    2. I agree it is easier to stick a camera over the fence then to fly a Quad copter to spy on people.

    7. I consider the Quad copter that i have built a toy.

    8. Not all Multi-Rotors come with GPS so jamming the signal can take down certain Multi-Rotors.

      Yeah it's mostly a rubbish article. Makes heaps of different assumptions at each point to suit it's own bizarre goals

      And the very fact the GPS signal have been successfully spoofed in recent years, broadcasting a fake GPS signal to the UAV causing it to divert from its previously preprogrammed flight path.

      This is what a number of operators in Eastern Ukraine are doing.

    1. They’re not actually called drones

    *continues to call them drones for remainder of article*

      Damn, beat me to it!!! Had to laugh a little at that.

      I'll stop calling them drones the day we stop using the name GIF and start using JIF. Sorry, but the horde has spoken!

      Last edited 22/06/15 3:25 pm

    Quadcopter is better English than the commonly accepted Quad-bike which, according to this articles logic, should mean four 2 wheeled machines.
    Quad rotor helicopter => Quadcopter.

    Also: drone is in all the dictionaries. This engineer might not use the word, but that doesn't mean it's not a valid word.

    This one really annoys me....

    4. They can’t take down planes

    Yes, yes they can take down planes, ok so they are unlikely to take down a 747, since the 747 is likely to suck the drone up and spit it out, it will do some damage though.

    However! Have you ever seen the damage a bird around the same size and density of a drone, say a cockatoo, does to a light aircraft, well, it will take out the prop, it will do substantial damage to a wing or elevator, it will go right through the window and then it could knock out the pilot.

    So yes, they can take down planes, and unfortunately they will do just that one day. A plane will be on late final, below 400', and have a drone go straight through the propellor and then into the cabin, leaving the pilot, if still conscious, scrambling to try and find a landing area since they can no longer make it to the runway.

    Or plane will be cruising at say 180 knots at 1500 feet or even 3000 feet, and some clown on the ground will think it is fun to take their drone to as high as they can make it go, and that drone will take out the propellor, or damage the wing, and the pilot will then need to try and get that aircraft down.

    It will happen people, as much as I hope it never does, it will happen.

    Remember, the basic rules about flying drones are:

    1. Do not fly above 400 feet (121 metres) above ground level
    2. Do not fly within 3 miles (~5 km) of an airport
    3. Do not fly in a restricted area (you will need aviation maps to work that out, however, almost all of Sydney Harbour is a restricted zone, and therefore illegal to fly a drone in without permission from CASA)
    4. Do not fly within 30m of people
    5. Do not fly over a gathering of people

    There are other rules, but these are the basic rules.

    With rule 1, Do not fly above 400 feet above ground, it is important to remember, that if you take off from the top of a cliff, and say that cliff is 600 feet high, and you then fly your drone off that cliff over the edge, your drone will then be at 1000 feet above ground level, and therefore be illegal. The rule is 400' above the ground where the drone is flying, not 400' above the ground from where you took off from. The reason is that there may be a plane flying at 500' above the ground in the canyon, and therefore your drone could cause a conflict.

    Last edited 22/06/15 8:32 pm

    Point 8 totally wrong! GPS uses radio signals to listen to pings from satellites to then calculate its position. If you flood the frequency that GPS uses then the GPS receiver cannot hear those pings and all of a sudden the "drone" has lost its position lock and floats away with the breeze.

    I too don't like when people call it a "Drone". It irritates me, moreover, I don't see why it can't be called a quadcopter or multicopter, either way it makes perfect sense.

    On the other hand, UAVs are getting so advanced that, jamming the signals including the GPS ones wouldn't complete disable it, or make it fall out of the skies. Depending on how the UAV is designed and programmed, it could revert to other means of navigation, until the GPS signals are restored.

    Considering absolutely none of the information in this article is accurate, relevant, or up to date - I'm guessing this "journalist" (might want to go back to school, pal. I'm talking elementary school), these "professors" (all of whom clearly made horribly wrong assumptions of the future of UAV's), and "engineers" (what engineers, by the way? I work for a UAV commercial testing site organization, and have literally never heard anyone complain about ANY of this) are all flipping burgers somewhere by now. Bravo on a complete garbage article, Bryan.

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