2016 Drone Year in Review

 

An RQ-4 Global Hawk being readied for take-off at Beale Air Force Base, California. Credit: USAF/Staff Sgt. Bobby Cummings

By Arthur Holland Michel

Every day of the year, we track the news from the drone world very closely. (If you haven’t already, you should subscribe to our Weekly Roundup newsletter to stay on top of the latest: you can do so at the bottom of this page). So much happens each week that it can be difficult to identify the significant trend lines that have broad implications for everyone. We have looked back at the year to walk you through some of the most important trends, news events, developments, successes, and failures of 2016.

Targeted Killing and Counterterrorism

A U.S. MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Credit: USAF/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys

In 2016, the United States continued conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda and other groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Among the notable strikes, a major U.S. airstrike in Somalia reportedly killed at least 150 al-Shabab fighters, and an airstrike involving drones and piloted aircraft killed more than 50 people in southern Yemen. In Pakistan, a drone killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban,  Khalifa Omar Mansoor, the militant responsible for a December 2014 terrorist attack on a Pakistani school that left 150 people dead, and Hafiz Saeed Khan, the leader of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Syria, a drone was used to kill Abu Afghan al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda leader, and Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who orchestrated the November 2015 attacks in Paris.


In addition to U.S. drones, the skies over Iraq and Syria are abuzz with a variety of other unmanned aircraft operated by a variety of state and non-state actors. In the summer, reports began emerging that ISIL fighters were using drones equipped with improvised explosive devices against enemy positions. In October, two Kurdish soldiers were killed by an explosives-laden drone operated by ISIL in Irbil, Iraq; this was the first known instance in which a drone operated by a non-state actor killed an enemy soldier. All told, there are more drones in Syria and Iraq, made and operated by a greater variety of groups, than in any prior conflict. We identified all known drones (over thirty, in total) that are operating in this war, and who is thought to be using them.


This has been an unprecedented year in government transparency around the U.S. targeted killing program. In a press conference at the Nuclear Security Summit in April, President Obama noted that the targeted killing campaign has indeed resulted in civilian deaths, a rare acknowledgement from the commander in chief. “[T]he legal architecture around the use of drone strikes or other kinetic strikes wasn’t as precise as it should have been,” the President said. In the summer, the Obama administration published the first official tally of U.S. military actions that have taken place outside of declared war zones over the past seven years. According to the report, the U.S. launched 473 lethal operations—most of which have been carried out by drones—resulting in 2,372 to 2,581 combatant deaths and 64 to 116 civilian deaths, a lower figure than unofficial estimates. The White House has ordered that a new tally be published every year. The Obama administration also released a redacted version of its classified “playbook;” a document implemented in May 2013 that established the legal framework for U.S. targeted killing and capture operations overseas. The Presidential Policy Guidance was originally drafted and implemented as part of an effort by the administration to tighten its guidelines for U.S. drone strikes. The document release is the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Finally, in December, the White House released a 61-page memorandum on the rules, norms, and limits of U.S. counterterrorism operations—primarily targeted killing and capture programs—that take place abroad. In the introduction to the document, President Obama stressed that these guidelines are necessary to reduce “the risk of an ill-considered decision.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that in 2016 the White House seems to have largely shifted control of the targeted killing program from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense, after a two-year review, rejected plans to create a unique medal specifically for personnel who operate drones and conduct cyber activities.

The United Kingdom also conducted drone strikes in 2016 as part of its campaign against ISIL. According to Drone Wars U.K., Royal Air Force Reaper drones conducted over 200 strikes this year in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Reaper drones have also been actively involved, alongside manned aircraft, in the air campaign against ISIL, though the Pentagon does not release detailed information on how many strikes have been conducted by drones. (Meanwhile on the ground, according to some news reports, ISIL began tying sheets across streets in Raqqa in an attempt to hide its members from drones.) The British Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights released a report urging the government to clarify its position on targeted killings.


Though targeted killing operations have been a central theme in discussions about the current U.S. administration’s two terms, the issue received very little attention in the contentious 2016 presidential election. In order to help readers understand the candidates’ positions on this complex topic, we conducted an in-depth investigation of on-the-record comments by candidates and their advisers on targeted killing and counterterrorism. Here is what we found.


Drone Regulations

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announcing the Part 107 non-recreational drone regulations in August.

This was a momentous year for U.S. domestic drone regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration unveiled and implemented its long-awaited Part 107 regulations, which govern drone operations in the U.S. National Airspace System. The regulations, which were drafted in response to a 2012 order from Congress, establish flight procedures and pilot certification requirements for non-recreational drone use. The regulations impose strict restrictions on how drones may be operated, but in a press conference, FAA chief Michael Huerta said that the FAA intends to issue waivers for certain operations that are currently not permitted by Part 107, such as flying at night or over crowds. On the same day that it implemented the rules, the FAA immediately issued 76 waivers to companies seeking to conduct operations not permitted by the regulations, and has issued over two hundred waivers to date. The FAA is currently drafting new rules that would allow commercial users to fly certain small drones over people; these “micro-UAS regulations” were developed on the basis of recommendations submitted to the FAA by a task force of industry and government stakeholders. Meanwhile the FAA announced that over 600,000 unmanned aircraft have been registered with the federal government since February, meaning that drones now outnumber all manned aircraft operating in U.S. airspace. In order to help guide its rulemaking agenda and work to accommodate the rapid expansion of drone use (in one of hundreds of incidents this year, a drone was involved in a close encounter with a Lufthansa jet on approach to Los Angeles International Airport), the FAA announced that it would form an unmanned systems advisory committee to guide policies on domestic drone integration. As many stakeholders continued to consider and debate the privacy implications of domestic drone use by private and public entities alike, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration released voluntary privacy guidelines for drone users, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced several new initiatives designed to boost the commercial drone industry in the United States, including a $35 million research fund.


When the FAA implemented the Part 107 rules, it brought to an end the Section 333 Exemption program, which for over a year and a half had served as the primary mechanism by which non-recreational drone operators could get airborne. As the U.S. opens its skies to widespread drone use, many wonder what shape the drone services industry is likely to take. The several thousand Section 333 Exemptions issued in 2014 and 2015 provide the best available data on what to expect. We released an in-depth study of these exemptions. Read it here.


Other countries have also been developing and implementing drone regulations of their own. Australia, France, and Japan all adopted new regulations, which are described in a comprehensive report by the U.S. Library of Congress.  The Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden ruled that camera-equipped drones constitute restricted surveillance equipment, and issued an order that drone users are required to obtain a permit for surveillance cameras and pay a substantial fee. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority issued a ban on the use of drones by individuals, commercial organizations, and government agencies without government permission.

 

Military Drone Proliferation and Development

An armed Turkish Bayraktar prior to a live fire test. Credit Baykar Technologies/YouTube

Nigeria has also followed many other countries in the acquisition and use of weaponized military drones. Early in the year, the country’s air force reportedly launched a drone strike against Boko Haram, its first ever successful drone strike. In a statement, Nigerian Air Force spokesperson Group Captain Ayodele Famuyiwa said that the strike, which was conducted with a Chinese CH-3 drone, targeted a group of vehicles near the Sambisa Forest. Chinese drones have proven to be particularly popular among new military drone operators around the world. Saudi Arabia acquired a number of armed CAIG Wing Loong drones, as has Kazakhstan. Photographs have emerged suggesting that Myanmar’s military is operating Chinese CH-3A surveillance and strike drones, and we have discovered satellite images confirming the presence of CH-4s operating in Jordan. Meanwhile, the Chinese defense establishment has been busy developing new drone systems; contractor NORINCO unveiled an unmanned helicopter, the Sky Saker H300, that can be equipped with precision guided munitions, and Poly Technologies revealed the CH-901, a small loitering munition drone that can operate for up to two hours. Turkey has joined the list of countries that have conducted lethal drone strikes after it used a locally-produced Bayraktar in numerous lethal operations against Kurdish PKK targets. According to a government official who spoke with Aviation Week in November, the strikes have killed over 70 PKK fighters so far.

Iran has also been active developing and deploying surveillance and strike drones. The Iranian military conducted demonstrations of an armed variant of its Shahed-129 drone, which it claims has recently been used to conduct strikes in Syria, and later unveiled a new version of the Shahed-129. The Iranian Navy unveiled a loitering munition drone with a range of up to 600 miles. We uncovered new evidence that Iran’s drone program continues to expand, but that it also often falls short of the state’s claims. Here’s what you need to know.

The United Kingdom and France announced a plan to invest more than $2.1 billion in a joint program to develop a prototype combat stealth drone, while the Spanish government approved the first phase of an agreement with France, Germany, and Italy to jointly develop a medium-altitude long-endurance drone.


As more militaries begin using drones in a wider variety of locations, we have been tracking these deployments by keeping an eye on air bases around the world where drones are operating from. We have uncovered Chinese deployments in Ningbo, a U.S. drone base in Tunisia, and a drone base in Saudi Arabia. You can track our findings here

A satellite image reviewed and annotated by the Center for the Study of the Drone showing a Chinese CH-4 Rainbow drone at Zarqa Airport in Jordan.


North Korean drones have reportedly crossed into South Korean airspace repeatedly. According to media reports, the drones have been spotted on radar along central and western sections of the Military Demarcation Line.

The Russian Ministry of Defense began testing the United 40, a medium-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drone developed by Abu Dhabi-based company Adcom Systems. The United Arab Emirates has settled a $352 million contract for eight Italian Piaggio P.1HH Hammerhead drones, an unmanned variant of Piaggio’s business plane, which has been delayed due to a crash during testing. The Italian Air Force has also ordered a number of Hammerheads.

In an effort to better coordinate and regulate the proliferation of military drone technology, the U.S. and over 40 other countries have signed a joint declaration on the import and export of armed drones. The one-page document lists five principles, including a resolution to engage in responsible export practices and to continue discussions around regulating the evolving technology. Drone components are a hot commodity on the international stage, and in June, we released a survey of recent examples of attempts to illegally export unmanned systems components out of the U.S.

Ground Robots

A screenshot of a video showing the Iraqi army’s Alrobot unmanned ground vehicle. Credit الاعلامي مصطفى حسين – فريق الاعلام الحربي

While much attention has gone toward the ongoing growth in the use of drones among law enforcement agencies, 2016 also saw the emergence of a new frontier at the intersection of unmanned systems technology and law enforcement: the lethal use of unmanned ground vehicles. In July, the Dallas Police Department used a robot to kill the perpetrator of a shooting that left five officers dead. A few months later, police in Greensboro, North Carolina used a robot to help arrest a suspect after a nine-hour standoff.


As it turns out, hundreds of law enforcement agencies all across the country have been acquiring unmanned ground vehicles at a growing rate. Here’s what you need to know about who owns these systems, where they are, and how much they cost.


Meanwhile, militaries are increasingly turning to armed unmanned ground vehicle technology. IAI unveiled the RoBattle, a six-wheel unmanned ground vehicle designed for transport, reconnaissance, and attack operations, and the Estonian Defence Forces began testing the THeMIS Adder, a weaponized unmanned ground vehicle. Russian arms maker Kalashnikov Group unveiled the BAS-01G BM Soratnik, an armed unmanned tank, and the Iraqi Army deployed the Alrobot, an armed unmanned tank, in the campaign against ISIL. Meanwhile, U.S.-Israeli robotics firm Roboteam is developing an unmanned ground vehicle that can also fly.

Counter-Drone Technology

An Immersion Vortex 250 drone collides with the spray from a water cannon, part of the counter-unmanned aerial system solution developed by the team from Robins Air Force Base, Ga Credit:USAF/Wesley Farnsworth

In response to growing concerns around drones and safety, both in military and domestic environments, there has been a great deal of interest in technologies to bring drones out of the sky.  The Department of Defense requested $20 million from Congress to counter drones belonging to ISIL, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a program called Aerial Dragnet to develop a system that tracks all small drones operating over a city-sized area, while Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation tested a system for detecting rogue drones at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Some people took matters into their own hands and brought down drones using more antiquated methods; a drone was shot down over a neighborhood in Edmond, Oklahoma, and a Virginia woman shot down a drone that was reportedly flying over her neighbor’s property. Police in North Dakota shot down a DJI Phantom hobby drone that was flying over the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Meanwhile, a New Jersey man plead guilty to a criminal mischief charge for shooting down a neighbor’s drone with a shotgun in 2014.

Elsewhere in the world, governments and militaries have also been working on this technology. China Daily reported that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force will establish a new unit to detect and destroy enemy drones, and South Korea is reportedly looking to develop or acquire a counter-drone laser system to deploy along the border with North Korea. Monaco announced plans to deploy a counter-drone system called UAV Watch and Catch. And police in Holland have devised an alternative way of bringing down drones that has captured the public’s imagination and drawn widespread condemnation among animal rights groups: they have purchased four sea eagles that will be trained to snatch rogue drones out of the air.

Numerous major defense firms and startups unveiled new counter drone systems. Airbus showed off its drone tracking and jamming system, which can detect and disrupt small unmanned aircraft flights up to 6.2 miles away. Diehl has unveiled a counter-drone system that uses electromagnetic pulses. Finmeccanica developed a counter-drone system that uses a variety of sensors and signal jammers. Northrop Grumman tested a counter-drone system that detects rogue drones through an acoustic sensor. Raytheon is working to offer its Phalanx autonomous ship defense system as a counter-drone weapon. Russia’s United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation has unveiled a microwave-based counter-drone system that can disable drones at distances of up to half a mile, and Russian firm Zavod Electromash developed a system capable of detecting large reconnaissance and attack drones. Saab announced that it had retooled its Giraffe surface radar to detect rogue drones. Rafael has unveiled a counter-drone system that employs electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as signal jammers to bring them down. U.S. startup Apollo Shield has unveiled a counter-drone system that detects rogue unmanned aircraft and forces them to fly home. Security firm Black Sage Technologies has developed a counter-drone system that integrates an artificial neural network to detect, identify, and track rogue unmanned aircraft.

Some of the counter-drone systems unveiled this year were more unusual. U.K. counter-drone systems maker Drone Defence announced a service by which ex-military and ex-law enforcement personnel track rogue drones and interdict them using either a jammer or a net gun. A team at Michigan Technological University developed a drone that can ensnare other drones with a net from up to 12 feet away. The MITRE corporation held a challenge for counter-drone technologies, which brought together a number of different systems including net guns and signal jammers.

New Consumer Drones

The DJI Mavic consumer quadcopter. Credit: DJI

The year also saw numerous new consumer drones aimed at making the experience of flying a drone easier and more enjoyable (and which will hopefully never have to encounter the counter-drone systems mentioned above). Popular consumer drone company Parrot unveiled the Disco, a fixed wing unmanned aircraft with an in-built camera. Chinese commercial drone maker DJI unveiled the Phantom 4, which features advance obstacle avoidance and follow-me features, and the Mavic Pro, a small, entry-level model. Camera maker GoPro unveiled its much anticipated Karma—a move that the company hoped would open up a new revenue stream—but issued a full recall shortly after the drone went on sale as a following reports of a serious power issue that caused some aircraft to fall in mid-flight. Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi unveiled two consumer multirotor drones and Chinese commercial drone maker PowerVision unveiled the PowerEgg, an egg-shaped consumer quadcopter. Yuneec unveiled an entry-level consumer drone, and startup Hover unveiled the Passport, a compact consumer drone that is designed for both indoor and outdoor use.

Militaries have also shown an interest in small, easy to use drones that provide a quick, reliable eye in the sky. The U.S. Army is calling for industry proposals for a soldier-portable nano drone that can operate for at least 15 minutes at a radius of 500 meters. The Pentagon also revealed the existence of a secretive technology unit, the Strategic Capabilities Office, which is developing a small swarming drone called the Perdix that can be launched from jet fighters. The Australian Army is looking to buy up to 200 nano drones. Prox Dynamics, a Norwegian firm that makes the Black Hornet, a camera-equipped nano drone that weighs just a few grams, was acquired by FLIR, a large U.S. company that makes surveillance cameras.

Autonomy

NASA’s MQ-9 Ikhana test drone, which is being used to develop sense-and-avoid systems. Credit: NASA

Autonomy is the key ingredient that will enable unmanned systems to carry out a broader range of tasks more effectively and safely, and the field advanced significantly this year both in the military and civilian spheres.

Autonomous sense-and-avoid collision avoidance systems will be crucial for the integration of large unmanned aircraft in complex airspace systems. The Netherlands Coastguard and the Royal Netherlands Air Force conducted a series of successful flight tests of a sense-and-avoid system for large unmanned aircraft. DARPA flight tested sense-and-avoid system that could eventually be used for unmanned aircraft, and NASA conducted live tests of a sense-and-avoid system aboard its MQ-9 Ikhana. NASA is also continuing its efforts to develop an air traffic control system for small drones. The space agency conducted a successful live test of its UAS traffic management system, flying 22 drones simultaneously, and later tested the system beyond line of sight. NASA is hoping to leverage expertise from the private sector for the initiative, and is sponsoring an open challenge for ideas for technologies that will help manage complex manned and unmanned air traffic systems in the future. Meanwhile, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is flight testing its Certifiable Predator B, a medium-altitude long-endurance drone with features that will enable it to fly in unrestricted airspace.


NASA is also pioneering the field of weather drone research. It used a Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance drone to study El Niño and several hurricanes. The National Hurricane Center even upgraded storm Gaston to a hurricane-level weather event based on real-time data obtained from the NASA Global Hawk. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used small Coyote drones to gather data from within Hurricane Matthew. Drones are well suited to studying the weather, and the field of weather drones is growing. Here’s what you need to know.


Engineers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed a pair of algorithms to help drones avoid obstacles in complex environments, while researchers at the University of Zurich and NCCR Robotics developed a navigation system for drones based on deep neural networks. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstrated highly autonomous multirotor drones at speeds of up to 45 mph in complex environments.

As unmanned systems, particularly unmanned weapons systems, become more autonomous, stakeholders have been working to develop policies to govern their acquisition and use. The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons met in Geneva for its third annual meeting to discuss a proposed ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, and the Defense Science Board made 26 recommendations to the Department of Defense aimed at advancing the development of autonomy in weapons systems. The study’s authors emphasize that the military must “move more rapidly to realize” the value of autonomy.


These stakeholders are still contending with many of the policy challenges that P.W. Singer raised in his 2009 book, Wired for War, which described the coming drone revolution and its implications for military affairs. Seven years after the book’s release, we revisited the drones described by Singer to see how the drone revolution has progressed so far. We published our findings in a detailed report. Read it here.


Maritime

The Boeing Echo Voyager unmanned submarine. Credit: Boeing/YouTube

Though aerial drones operating over land still receive the most attention, more and more of the action is actually happening at sea. In the final days of the year, a Chinese ship seized a U.S. Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider, an underwater drone that was reportedly being used to gather scientific data, during an operation in the South China Sea. Following several days of negotiations, China agreed to return the vehicle, though not before the story had made international headlines. The strategic significance of maritime military power is resurging, and militaries across the globe are working hard to leverage unmanned systems in this environment. DARPA and the U.S. Navy unveiled and began testing the Sea Hunter (also known as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel or ACTUV), a 130-foot unmanned surface vehicle that will be used for a wide variety of missions. Boeing unveiled a 51-foot unmanned submarine, the Echo Voyager, that it claims is capable of multi-month missions without refueling. In a demonstration, Boeing and Liquid Robotics used four Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft to successfully detect and track a live submarine (Boeing bought Liquid Robotics a few weeks later). A team at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is testing a long-endurance underwater drone called the CRACUNS that can also fly. The U.S. Navy announced that it will field its Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS against Mobile targets project, which will outfit manned submarines with small drones for reconnaissance and surveillance. Several companies demonstrated how large and small maritime unmanned systems could work together. Drone maker AeroVironment announced that the U.S. Navy conducted successful tests in which a Blackwing submarine-launched drone was used as a communications link between a submarine and a swarm of General Dynamics unmanned undersea vehicles. U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin successfully launched a Vector Hawk surveillance drone from a Marlin MK2 unmanned undersea vehicle. And U.S. Navy General Dynamics Bluefin-21 unmanned undersea vehicle successfully launched several small Bluefin SandShark UUVs. (If you’re finding it hard to keep track of all the different underwater drones that are operated by the U.S., here’s what you need to know.) Meanwhile, China is reportedly investing heavily in expanding its range of unmanned maritime vehicles. Two Chinese firms, Poly Technologies, Inc. and Heu Ship Tech unveiled an unmanned boat that can reach speeds of 80 knots, while the People’s Liberation Army announced that it has developed a high-speed autonomous unmanned boat, the SeaFly-01.

The ACTUV unmanned boat. Credit: DARPA

The growing interest in the maritime sphere has not just focused on drones that float and swim, but also aerial drones designed specifically to operate over the seas. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency unveiled the design of a large ship-based vertical-takeoff drone, the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) aircraft, which will be developed by Northrop Grumman. Since it does not require a runway or an aircraft carrier, the TERN is intended to provide a long-endurance surveillance and strike capability that could be launch from smaller ships. Meanwhile, the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton completed the operational assessment phase of development and entered into low-rate initial production. The Triton is based on the Air Force’s Global Hawk, and will be used for strategic maritime surveillance and reconnaissance operations. A third major Navy drone project, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone program, has evolved into an unmanned aerial refueling aircraft, though it will potentially have strike capabilities, too; it’s called the MQ-25A Stingray.

Patents

An image from a patent awarded to Amazon for a small assistant drone system.

One way to gain a glimpse of the future of drones is by paying a visit to the patents office. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office awarded patents for all sorts of futuristic drone concepts in 2016. Amazon was granted a patent for a miniature voice-controlled drone assistant, potentially for law enforcement applications, as well as a patent for a drone that would fly around offices as a remote videoconferencing unit. Disney was awarded a patent for a drone that can be used to discharge fireworks, confetti, and artificial snow. Ford filed an application to patent a drone deployment system for self-driving cars, while drone company DJI launched a patent infringement lawsuit against Yuneec, another drone maker. Boeing has been awarded a patent for an automatic recharging station for small military drones. (Though someday recharging stations may not be necessary: Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a system to recharge drones in mid-flight).

Drone Deliveries

An Amazon delivery drone conducting the company’s first live delivery. Credit: Amazon/YouTube

Ever since 2012, when a U.S. arts collective unveiled the Burrito Bomber, a spoof concept for a drone that delivered burritos at the click of a button, the world has been waiting for drone-delivered Mexican food to become a reality. In 2016, it did (for a small number of students at Virginia Tech); in a live test, Alphabet’s Project Wing partnered with Chipotle to deliver burritos by drone to students at a designated location on the school’s campus. A patent published this year revealed that the company’s proposed Project Wing drone delivery system will involve both aerial and ground-based unmanned vehicles; another patent shows that delivery drones would issue vocal commands to nearby humans such as “Caution: Stay Back.” After Alphabet cancelled a drone delivery partnership with Starbucks, a report by Bloomberg suggested that the Project Wing initiative may be in trouble.

Meanwhile, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority granted Amazon permission to test its high profile Prime Air drone delivery system at a secret location near Cambridge (though it was later revealed that Amazon began testing delivery drones at the site at least a year earlier). A patent revealed that the company system might rely on docking and recharging stations that would be mounted on tall structures such as lamp posts and churches. In December, the company conducted its first live drone delivery; an unmanned aircraft delivered an Amazon Fire streaming device and a bag of popcorn to a pre-selected customer who lives near the testing site. All told, the delivery took 13 minutes. Amazon plans to expand the service to several more customers in the area soon. (In related news, Wal-Mart announced that it will begin using drones for checking warehouse inventories.)

Elsewhere, drone startup Flirtey conducted the first successful delivery by an autonomous drone in a residential area in the U.S. DHL advanced its own drone delivery program. Chinese retailer JD.com carried out numerous drone deliveries on Single’s Day, the country’s busiest online shopping day, and China Post used a drone to deliver a package over 6 miles in the Zhejiang province, while Japanese retailer Rakuten delivered goods by drone to customers on a golf course.

Though commercial drone delivery remains very much in development, humanitarian drone delivery became a reality in 2016. The government of Rwanda and drone delivery firm Zipline began a medical drone delivery program to ferry urgent materials to remote clinics; the company is working on a similar initiative in Costa Rica. UNICEF established a test program for medical deliveries drones in Malawi, Stony Brook University and drone firm Vayu are establishing a drone delivery system for urgent medical materials in Madagascar, and United Postal Service successfully completed a trial drone delivery of medical supplies on Children’s Island, Massachusetts.

Drones and Entertainment

A swarm of 500 drones flying in the Intel 500 light show. Credit: Intel/YouTube

In 2016, drones demonstrated their potential to not only save lives, but also provide great entertainment. Drone racing made it to the big leagues. Investors raised $8 million to fund the Drone Racing League, and ESPN announced that it signed a multi-year international media distribution deal with the International Drone Racing Association. The sport provides thrills and spills aplenty, and a number of competing leagues have emerged in the past two years; here’s what you need to know.

Meanwhile, chipmaker Intel, which is working to corner the drone chips market, conducted a series of drone light shows featuring up to 500 drones flying in a coordinated swarm, and unveiled a drone specifically designed for aerial swarming.  Disney will be using Intel’s systems for a 300-drone lightshow that will be on view throughout the winter. (Disney is also reportedly planning to use drones to keep an eye out for other drones that may be spying on the set of Star Wars Episode VIII). Universal is also reportedly exploring the use of drones for live shows.

Drone Industry

The drone industry is becoming busier and bigger with each passing year. A Goldman Sachs report predicts that global spending on drones over will top $100 billion over the next five years, though  Venture capital funding for drone startups reportedly dropped 59 percent year-over-year in the third quarter of the year. Among some of the biggest deals of the year, the U.K. signed an estimated $1 billion deal for 16 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Certifiable Predator B surveillance and strike drones, Korean Air Aerospace Division won a $300 million contract to develop several dozen tactical surveillance and reconnaissance drones for the Republic of Korea Army, the French Army will acquire 14 SAGEM Patroller tactical drones in a deal that’s reportedly worth an estimated $340 million, and the Indian military finalized a $3 billion plan to procure up to 5,000 drones in the next ten years.


The U.S. Department of Defense alone plans to spend over $4 billion on drone development and acquisition in 2017. We’ve done a deep-dive on hundreds of budget documents to figure out what that money will be spent on.


The British Ministry of Defence announced that it will purchase two Airbus Zephyr high-altitude surveillance drones in a deal worth an estimated $15.2 million. Facebook conducted the maiden flight of its Aquila high-altitude solar-powered drone, which it hopes to use to beam Internet to remote areas; an NTSB investigation found that the aircraft suffered a structural failure during the tests, even though the company claimed that the drone flight was a success. (For more on high-altitude long-endurance drones, click here.)
There were, however, some dark spots in the industry. Alphabet Inc. is seeking to sell Boston Dynamics, a research company specializing in advanced legged robots, after the U.S Marine Corps cancelled a major program with the firm. Drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, once a leader in the consumer drone market, will shift its focus to the commercial and professional drone market, and AeroVironment, a California contractor that develops small tactical reconnaissance and surveillance drones, posted larger than expected losses.

 

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