Drones: very serious toys


Unmanned aerial vehicles have gone through an outstanding development in the last few years. 2013 was a turning point in the adoption of such devices. Back in 2009, Chris Anderson (editor of Wired magazine) founded the company 3DRobotics and DIY Drones, as a pioneer in a field that had only been explored by large companies, most often for military uses. Anderson’s goal was to democratize the use of such devices, which he regards as flying robots.

He is quite right, and eventually the robotics area, as well as the flying systems that use GPS-guided and movement sensor technology are the ones that include more technology. Avionics is no longer a problem to date, it was solved long ago.

A drone is not a radiocontrol device. It may be operated remotely, but one of its differential features lies in its ability to fly autonomously, whether by following a previously set route or by adapting its trajectory by interacting with beacons or devices that emit the right signal to act as a guide for the unmanned aerial vehicle. For instance, drones by 3Drobotics make it possible to use a Smartphone or any other electronic device as a beacon in such a way that flying trajectories follow beacons. The key lies in understanding that drones include electronic technologies to make the flight totally or partially automatic.

In any case, as will be shown further, from a legal perspective drones that are not devoted to professional tasks are considered radiocontrol toys, not proper drones.

Caption: Chris Anderson is one of the people that has shown the highest commitment to drones in Silicon Valley, both by means of his 3Drobotics company and by means of DIY Drones.


 Drones that are not devoted to professional purposes are considered radiocontrol toys


What is a drone?

“Drone” means “bumblebee” or “male bee”. The use of this word to refer to unmanned aerial vehicles has been documented by Steve Zaloga (analyst) in a letter to the “Defense News” media in the USA. In a few words, its origins date back to the 1930s: the United Kingdom had developed a remotely controlled plane to perform anti-aircraft target practice, and they called it “The Queen Bee”. The United States developed their own version and named it “drone” (bumblebee).

The word “drone” has also been used as a verb in several contexts. For instance, it is used to describe the process by which an aircraft is turned into an unmanned aerial system. Or else the process by which a drone would locate its targets in conflicts such as Afghanistan’s war by using signals from cell phones as a method for target location. UCAS are combat UAS (Unmanned Combat Air Systems).

This name was used for years to refer to remotely controlled aircrafts, which would later on be called RPV (remotely piloted vehicles) and later on UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles). “Vehicles” would afterwards be replaced by “systems” and the UAS expression (unmanned air systems) appeared. The next step was the expression RPA (remotely piloted aircraft).

In any case, they are vehicles, aircrafts or systems that fly with a technology that enables them to move around with no need for constant control by a human operator, and without any pilot in the vehicles. Routes may be drawn up using GPS systems or beacons, or else by pilots who stay on the ground and remotely control the drone’s trajectory.

Public opinion is polarized about their use, and they have supporters and opponents. In fact, when they started being frequently used in USA military campaigns, activist movements that were against their use emerged. This would be the case of the artistic/activist group United Unknown (unitedunknown.com/yes-we-drone) as well as others that have “recycled” slogans such as “Yes we can” into “Yes we drone”, or “Don’t tase me, bro” into “Don’t drone me, bro”.

Drones used in military campaigns such as those in Pakistan or Afghanistan made them look like a technology to be used for dubious ends. And it is precisely in the military industry where more money is invested in R+D. Some of the results obtained were the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator -with capacity to carry weapons around- the General Atomics MQ-9 or the Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS-D, among others. Each of them costs over several million dollars, and program development budgets amount to hundreds of millions of euros.


Drone Atlante Med


If we were to imagine a complexity scale for drones, at the lower end of it we would find those drones that became popular in the recreational and household sector in the last two years. They are drones after all, as they have automatic or semiautomatic flight control systems that enable the drone to maintain its stability in an autonomous manner.

These are devices that may cost between several hundred euros and several thousand euros, and they are based on battery-operated engines and on a variable amount of rotors. They range from quadcopters to octocopters through six-rotor models.


The highest R+D investments may be found in the military industry


In any case, such drones have serious limitations in terms of flight range, speed and range of action. Electric engines in rotors show poor work performance, and they need to be capable of lifting the drone, its battery and the payload used for the service assigned (whether it is a video recording, the transport of goods or sensor monitoring). When the capacity of the battery increases, so does its weight, so more engines would be required, which in turn would use up more energy and need a bigger battery. And we fall into a vicious circle, which is currently limited to less than half an hour.

Somewhere in between, Spain has a pioneering business project in the field. The FT-ALTEA drone is the first civil RPA that was awarded an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate EC-008 granted by the Spanish Aviation Safety and Security Agency (AESA, Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea). This is a pioneering initiative that started in 2006 when the Flightech Systems Europe, S.A. company was founded. The FT-ALTEA drone costs arounds 900.000 € per unit, a much more affordable option for civil and state organizations and companies. In fact, it has been leading the way in the RPA legal regulations since the need to provide a legal framework for this drone’s operations arised.


Legislation: so much work to be done

One of the problems encountered by drones is the lack of legislation. Having an aircraft fly, even a little one, is no small matter. Least of all when it comes to having an RPA such as FT-Altea fly. After all, we are talking about a 6-meter wingspan, the possibility to reach a 1500-meter altitude and a flight range of up to 4 hours.

Step by step, the corresponding institutions in every country create the required legal regulations when companies ask for a legal framework for their initiatives. We need not go far to find an example of the aforementioned. In Spain, the Spanish Aviation Safety and Security Agency (AESA, Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea) and the “Directorate General for Civil Aviation” (DGAC, Dirección General de Aviación Civil) are two of the organizations in charge of making drone-related laws. Other organizations such as ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) also have their say in the field, specially when we consider that the legal regulations in every country are defined over time, taking into consideration the regulations that were previously defined in other countries.

The current legal framework in Spain consists of a temporary regulation that was approved by the Council of Ministers (Consejo de Ministros) on July 4th, 2014. The Real Decreto-ley 8/2014 (“Royal Decree-law 8/2014”) from July the 4th, -on the endorsement of urgent measures to foster growth, competitiveness and efficiency- includes in its 6th section the temporal regulations for remotely operated aircrafts (the so-called drones) which weigh less than 150 kg upon takeoff. Exploitation conditions for such aircrafts are established in the areas of technical and scientific works.

Later on, the regulation was processed as a law. The process was finished on Friday, October 17th, 2014 and the Law 18/2014 (October 15th) was published in the BOE (Boletín Oficial del Estado; “Official State Gazette”), tackling the approval of urgent measures to foster growth, competitiveness and efficiency. The regulation joins other regulations on RPAS that were already in force in other countries (Source: Eurocontrol).

Drones RPAS

The legal framework that was in force before the decree-law issued in July 2014 made a difference between the use of drones for recreational purposes and for commercial purposes. As states in an announcement issued by AESA on April 7th, 2014:

“… a remotely piloted aircraft shall be technically considered a drone when given a commercial or professional use. When such aircrafts are used for sports or recreational purposes, they shall be considered model aircrafts, and they will be governed by the corresponding regulations in the area”

In the aforementioned statement, using drones for professional activities was specifically forbidden:

“The use of remotely piloted aircrafts for commercial or professional purposes is not, and never has been, allowed. The prohibition includes activities considered aerial works, such as photogrammetry, smart agriculture (detection of the specific plants in a farm that would require specific care, such as watering or spraying to optimize crop growth), graphic reports of any kind, inspection of high-voltage lines, railway inspection, border surveillance, detection of forest fires, site recognition in natural catastrophes to ensure a proper assignment of aid…”

Nevertheless, such a restrictive regulation does not seem appropriate in the context of technology introduction for process optimization, development of activity areas and organization of inhabited spaces, whether urban or rural. Least of all in an European context where other countries had already started issuing laws on the use of UAS, and several companies had already requested permissions to operate in the civil arena. Thus, in July 2014 a temporary regulation was approved to fill the regulatory gap in the field.

Organizations such as EASA (European Aviation Safety agency) are also working hard to define a permanent, international regulation for drones. They recently drew up a work proposal in this area, based on a flexible regulation in agreement with the risk level associated to the use of drones.

In the United States, the FAA established (back in February 2015) its own regulation for drones, with a similar approach than that of other regulatory initiatives. Work is also being done in Spain towards the definition of a permanent regulation that completes the temporal regulation currently in force.

A permanent regulation is to be defined for the future. Last March 17th, in the opening session of the 1st Meeting on the Application of drones to Civil Engineering, the General Manager of the Spanish Aviation Safety and Security Agency (AESA, Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea), Isabel Maestre, stated that the European regulations on civil drones will be similar to the temporary regulations issued in July 2014. Sections of the European regulation (such as the fact that drones should be treated as new kinds or aircrafts with proportional regulations depending on the risk of each operation, or the fact that the person who controls the unmanned aircraft is responsible for its use) are already taken into account in the Spanish regulation. Maestre also stated that the future Spanish regulation will continue to be flexible in order to adapt itself to the frequent changes that come up in a sector under constant evolution. 

After analyzing drones from a conceptual and a legal point of view, we will now move on to considering them in the context of smart cities in particular, and in that of the smart society in general. To date, regulations do not permit using drones in urban spaces in civil scenarios, but in the section of scientific and experimental uses future regulations may include applications in safety or healthcare areas, even in logistics and other activities as long as the requirements for certifications and risk of accidents are complied with. To take a case in point, last Thursday, March 19th, the FAA allowed Amazon Logistics to undertake experiments using its drone Amazon Prime Air as a vehicle to deliver orders to clients in the framework of their express delivery services. Amazon will be required to report to the FAA and fly at a 150-meter minimum distance from people not involved in the experiment; pilot certification will also be a must.

As drones improve in terms of safety and reliability, their use in urban areas should become widespread. To date, several ton-weight helicopters fly over urban spaces on a regular basis, only a few hundred meters high, for the surveillance of events, demonstrations or traffic conditions. Using drones in such tasks would make much more sense, but the statistical modelling of possible accidents has not yet been established in a definitive manner.


As drones keep on improving their security and reliability, their use in urban areas should become widespread


Nowadays, most of the applications for UAS are intended for out-of-town areas, but still they are related to the day-to-day function of smart cities: energy, agriculture or transport, as well as safety and the rescue of people or goods. Besides, several uses should be treated separately. Military uses go their own way, and they have their own regulations and conditions. Civil uses may be divided into two different types: those that use drones with flight ranges around half an hour and those that use drones with flight ranges of several hours. The former require a topology in which base stations are moved to the zones where the drone is to operate, whereas the latter makes room for the definition of scenarios with more clearly defined operation centers and with a much more ambitious range of action.

To date, FT-ALTEA from the Flightech Systems company is virtually the only RPA that complies with the established requirements to face significant flight ranges and ranges of action. Airbus Defense and Space has its own project, Atlante, in its final stages: They are waiting for the airworthiness certificate issued by AESA, but unlike the FT-ALTEA (weight: 80 Kg), the Atlante weighs 520 Kg. Atlante has already been taken to AESA to request an airworthiness certificate for civil uses. Without such a certificate, its use would be restricted to separate air spaces such as those used for pilot specific training. An example of that would be the Centro Atlas in Jaén, which has more than 1000 Km2 of separate air space for flying (www.atlascenter.aero). It is possible to fly drones there without any official certification.

FT-ALTEA is now ready to start, and it is currently waiting for public administration or companies to introduce a UAS solution for applications such as fire prevention. ALTEA includes several payloads with all kinds of camera technology: infrared cameras, thermal cameras, cartographic cameras, picture and video cameras, etc. It also includes temperature, humidity or CO2 sensors, to name a few. Cameras and drones are in constant communication with the Ground Control Station (GCS) both to receive the video signal in real time and to modify the drone trajectory if required by circumstances. In fact, having a ground control station with trained and certified staff to remotely control the RPA is required by law, even if the aircraft is capable of moving around in an autonomous manner using integrated navigation systems.


Drone Aeromax

The required investments are no small matter: 2,7 million euros for a system made up of three FT-ALTEA units with standard payloads, ground control systems, a guarantee, an insurance and maintenance work over five years. But still this remains a much cheaper option than that offered by other UAS, which may replace the use of helicopters or optimize the use of ground systems due to its aerial exploration capacity in a 200-Km maximum range, given the 4-h flight range.

The following step Flightech is to take involves the inclusion of transport mechanisms for flame retardants or water that make it possible to contain a fire in its initial phases, when it is still possible to do so in a somewhat easy manner.

Applications for drones driven by electric rotors and engines are different, and they are built around a different logistical hierarchy. Flight range hardly reaches half an hour in the best possible conditions (except for several special models that are now being developed and include fuel cell technologies) with limitations in the payload to be transported. In such cases, logistical hierarchy implies taking the drone to the location where it is to be used. Battery recharge is a slow process, and therefore it is essential to bring along spare batteries. Communications between the operating staff and the drone are performed using less specialized devices than permanent ground stations.


Despite all the aforementioned, these drones do not require substantial investments, and deployment of large fleets does not require an expense that would be impossible to afford by public administration or companies.

Solutions currently taken into consideration include several areas, such as agriculture, engineering, public works, safety, emergencies, surveillance, maintenance of works and infrastructure…

In the 1st Meeting on the application of DRONES to Civil Engineering -which was held last March 17th in the Conference Hall at the Higher Technical School of Industrial Engineering in Madrid- applications presented included air quality control, forest analysis, agriculture, heritage maintenance, emergency management, maintenance of energy facilities such as power plants, wind power plants, solar power plants or gas pipelines, as well as terrain contour mapping. Drones carrying along the proper cameras and sensors may easily access locations that could be dangerous for staff under normal conditions.

Detection of a broken solar panel, gas pipeline leakages, cracks in structures (pillars, bridges, wind turbins or roofs) becomes easy when a drone is used.

But not all the applications are circumscribed to these areas. For instance, in the last edition of the MWC in Barcelona, the company Star Solutions introduced a drone that may deploy a 3G/4G local cell phone coverage area that may be extremely interesting when it comes to finding lost people by using a smartphone in areas that are difficult to access.

In terms of safety, Motorola Solutions, a company that specializes in offering solutions in the area of critical communications, has recently announced its intention to invest in the company that specializes in drones CyPhy Works (http://cyphyworks.com) and its communication technology “microfilament tether” that makes it possible to transfer video and audio in real time, as well as a power supply for the drone.
Generally speaking, surveillance is a particularly interesting field for the use of drones, both in public and private safety, as long as regulation finds a way to include these urban scenarios beyond the public arena.

In Barcelona, the Sociedad General de Aguas is working on the integration of drones to patrol the sewage network on the city. A demo was shown in the last Mobile World Congress 2015 in the 4YFN event (4 Years From Now).
In France, drones are already being used in a consistent manner to measure how much water and fertilizer is needed by crops. The company SenseFly, for instance, markets a drone called eBee that may collect data on-site. These data may later on be sent to pioneering companies in UAV farming such as Airinov (www.airinov.fr/en/), which in a couple of days will calculate the amount of fertilizer required for the optimization of production.

In terms of logistics, Amazon has taken the first step with its initiative Amazon Prime. But right now it remains somewhat sensationalist rather than feasible. Still, Amazon has been granted permission by the USA FAA (the USA equivalent to AESA) to use their drones experimentally in zones where they pose no threat to the integrity of people or goods. This is a further step towards their plan to use drones as a system for the express delivery of orders. Most probably, a combined system will be used in which the drone travels in the delivery van and is used locally to reach zones where using drones is faster than delivery in person.

In terms of multimedia authorship, drones are already used in all kinds of film productions, documentaries, marketing or advertising. It makes it possible to shoot from unique points of view. For recreational uses, drones have a widespread use in multimedia recordings of video or images, but no profit-seeking or business models are involved. Drones make it possible to record sports activities or family events from original, funny perspectives. Companies such as 3D Robotics started that way and later on drifted to include not only a recreational area but also a business one. So did DJI, another benchmark company in the area of UAV, along with a myriad of several other companies that are getting on board the moving train of high-performance drones.. 

Drones are being manufactured in Japan to monitor nuclear facilities in Fukushima. The University of Chiba has developed the Surveyor hexacopter, which may carry around up to 6 Kg of payload including radiation meters and high-resolution cameras. Drones are being used in agriculture to identify zones in need for watering, and there are even drones that carry around defibrillators and medical supplies to areas difficult to access before the rescue teams get there.


A future to be defined 

Yes we drone

Drones are still in an early phase of development. Progress is steady, and legal regulations are yet to be defined once the technology is stabilized and standards are defined for security and for communication and electronic systems, as well as for operating systems. Batteries, materials and automation should keep evolving for drones to become a familiar element in city functioning, or in the functioning of rural areas. Drones are mostly managed from an open source perspective, and many of their elements are taken from the DIY (Do It Yourself) philosophy. After all, they are Arduino-like systems that may manage rotors in a dynamic manner according to the information obtained from sensors that monitor position and battery load, as well as from gyroscopes and other integrated electronic elements. They have a huge potential, but still it was this potential, along with their range of action, that required a sufficiently developed legal framework to regulate correct uses and prevent incorrect ones.

Recent episodes, such as the presence of drones in public places in the context of urban spaces (including the surrounding areas of the White House) or the use of drones to transport drugs, have created trouble. A woman was injured by an RPA in Australia while taking part in a triathlon race, and more and more of such devices are being detected as they become more popular and cheaper.


Amazon has been granted permission by the FAA to experiment with a new logistics service for express order delivery


While waiting for a consensus on the final regulations, we should stick to common sense and proper risk evaluation. For instance, Francisco Gayá, CEO of Flightech Systems, states that he does not want their drones being used to fly over cities or crowded places. This is a severe, strong statement, even though their drones are equipped with robust, redundant security systems and emergency parachutes, which should reduce risks to a minimum level for an 80-Kg device. At least, they should be smaller than those associated to potential accidents for police helicopters.



3D Robotics

On the origin of drones




Legal regulations:

BOE (“Official State Gazette”)

Real Decreto (Royal Decree)

Eurocontrol, EU countries that have RPA legal regulations


United States FAA:




EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency):



List of unmanned aerial vehicles (Wikipedia)






Star Solutions

Motorola Solutions

Flightech Systems



Flightech Systems


DIY Drones 






ABBREVIATIONS AND ACRONYMS (Obtained from ICAO and other sources)


  • ACAS Airborne Collition Avoidance System
  • DS-B Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast
  • AM(R)S Aeronautical Mobile (R) Service
  • ARNS Aeronautical Radio Navigation Service
  • ARNSS Aeronautical Radio Navigation Satellite Service
  • ATC Air Traffic Control
  • ATM Air Traffic Management
  • ATS Air Traffic Services
  • CAA Civil Aviation Authority
  • C2 Command and Control
  • C3 Command, Control and Communication
  • CMR World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC)
  • CPDLC Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication
  • EASA European Aviation Safety Agency
  • EUROCAE European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment
  • HF High Frequency
  • IFR Instrument Flight Rules
  • NOTAM Notice to Airmen
  • ICAO International Civil Aviation Organization
  • PANS Procedures for Air Navigation Services
  • QOS Quality of Service
  • RPA Remotely Piloted Aircraft
  • RPAS Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems
  • RTCA, Inc. Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics
  • SAR Search and Rescue
  • SARPs Standards and Recommended Practices
  • SATCOM Satellite Communication
  • AM(R)SS Aeronautical Mobile (R) Satellite Service
  • SMS Safety Management System
  • SSP State Safety Programme
  • UA Unmanned Aircraft
  • UAS Unmanned Aircraft Systems
  • UAV Unmanned Air Vehicle (obsolete expression)
  • ITU International Telecommunication Union
  • UOC UAS Operator Certificate
  • VDL VHF Digital Link
  • VFR Visual Flight Rules
  • VHF Very High Frequency
  • VLOS Visual Line Of Sight
  • VMC Visual Meteorological Conditions


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