What do drones look like and what can they do?
Two kinds of drones exist: microdrones, weighing less than twenty-five pounds and operating only within line of sight of the operator, and machodrones, with more extensive capabilities. Microdrones are here and now; machodrones are in the works for civilian application. 

What will they look like?

Microdrones will look much like the presently available Phantom 2 Vision, although somewhat bigger. The Phantom is a 2.5 pound, electrically powered quadcopter that represents the state of the art in drones for hobbyists. It has a ceiling of about 600 feet, a top speed of about 30 knots, endurance of a half-hour, and can hover in a fixed position autonomously without the operator touching the controls. If the control link is lost, the Phantom autonomously returns to its launching point. Its operator manipulates controls resembling the cyclic and collective sticks on a helicopter. A built-in high-def video camera can be tilted by commands sent through the remote-control link. The camera system streams full-motion video to the operator to assist him in flying, and can download the videos for later editing, analysis, and distribution.

What will they be able to do?

The most interesting early applications for microdrones are law-enforcement support, electronic news gathering (“ENG”), real-estate marketing, motion-picture, and television production, aerial surveying, precision agriculture, and pipeline and powerline patrol. We put a Phantom 2 Vision through a flight-test program to evaluate some of these these possibilities.

Police patrol cars can have microdrones in their trunks. When they get to a crime scene, they can launch the drone to scan rooftops and back yards in a residential area, or sidestreets and alleys in a commercial district, or to enforce a perimeter. 

For newsgathering, personnel in an ENG truck can launch a microdrone for overhead shots of a fire or a crime scene, traffic accidents and "b-roll".  

Ground crews engaged in pipeline or powerline patrol can have microdrones in their trucks and supplement their inspections by periodically launching them.

But microdrones will always operate at the margins, limited by a line-of-sight restriction: the DROP must be in the same general vicinity as the drone. Obviously, if ground transportation is required to get the drone where it is needed, transit times are increased substantially. One of the advantages of helicopters for crime fighting or news is that they can be dispatched from a central location and be on the scene in a matter of minutes.

In the law-enforcement context, microdrones would offer little help for foot- or vehicle pursuits: the suspect can easily outrun a microdrone’s operating radius. In the news gathering context, microdrones will not, with current and foreseeable video technologies, be able to get video imagery of the quality demanded by TV stations. Ciniflex or FLIR cameras with their gimbals, transmitters, antennas, and recorders in ENG helicopters weigh 200-300 pounds. 

In the pipeline and powerline patrol context, microdrones will not be able to go where the ground crew’s truck cannot go because of the line-of-sight restriction, and there are many places alongside pipelines and under powerlines where trucks cannot go.