The UAV may be autonomous, requiring pre-programmed flight and mission instructions to be uploaded to onboard computers, or can be piloted remotely by a human operator from any distance provided there is an adequate communications link to the aerial vehicle. While the electronic controller is often assumed to be “ground-based,” it can also be operated from an airborne or sub-surface platform, as long a command signal can be received by the vehicle UAVs are also often “missionized”, outfitted with special payloads that can be activated autonomously or through active human control to meet commercial or military requirements.
The first UAVs actually predate manned aviation and have continued to be a part of both military and civilian aviation ever since. The first military and intelligence use of UAVs occurred as early as 1849, over 50 years prior to the wright brothers, to float incendiary balloons over Venice. Today, they are still used for military purposes as a design option to carry out hazardous special missions without risking the lives of personnel and/or to execute missions that would not be possible for a human being to accomplish within comparable time and operational parameters. Outfitted with appropriate military and technological payloads, today’s UAVs can perform surveillance and reconnaissance, collect signals intelligence (SIGINT), deliver ordnance, haul cargo, enforce laws, inspect remote pipelines, help fight wildfires, and more. By approaching their development as a complete Unmanned Aerial System – the flying hardware, the controls, and data connectivity that make the hardware function – the United States Department of Defense (US DoD) has substantially evolved UAS capabilities, reliability, and access worldwide. They have also continued to evolve UAS elements over the years to address new threats and opportunities as they emerge.
Market growth among non-military operators has recently outpaced military and intelligence use as UAV technologies have improved and relative costs decreased, States and municipalities now task UAVs to enhance firefighting, traffic control, rescue operations, airport and maritime safety, park and forest management, and other tasks that support first responders. Commercial UAV uses include aerial photo and video services, data collection, building and infrastructure inspections, package delivery, residential and commercial real estate, security monitoring and inspections, film production, mapping, agriculture, and more. Universities and institutions use UAVs to collect data, imagery, and environmental samples for research projects, as well as for security. Personal use of small UAVs has also escalated, mostly for entertainment, but also for home security and property maintenance. The FAA has established rules for the integration of UAS into the National Aerospace System and will likely lead to their further proliferation, particularly where it will be more cost effective to remove the human from the aircraft in order to successfully complete the assigned tasks.
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