On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched an object named “Sputnik” into orbit around the earth. It was a metallic sphere outfitted with radio antennas, the first modern satellite orbiting our planet in outer space. Jump forward almost 60 years to present day, and there are more satellites in space than there have ever been, though most of them are non-functioning. Between government and private use, the earth is host to about 1,100 satellites. There are 2,600 more in orbit, but out of use.
Even though medium-earth-orbit space satellites can “fly” at an altitude of up to 22,000 miles and travel around 17,500 miles per hour, there’s a new kid in town when it comes to tech-oriented flying machines, and it lives decidedly closer to the surface: the drone. The propeller-driven semi-autonomous vehicles are finding all kinds of unlikely applications. Perhaps most famously, Amazon imagines using them to build an ersatz automated UPS delivery service all its own, called Amazon Prime Air, with orders shipped to your door right away via flying robot.
But Google and Facebook also have big drone plans of their own. Google’s lesser-publicized Project Wing looks very much like a counterpoint to Amazon’s Prime Air, delivering things by air to even remote locations. Facebook, in keeping with its mission to get the world online, has been testing a rather large solar-powered drone since last year to use to provide internet connectivity to parts of the world that are off the beaten, well-developed path. It can stay in the air for months at a time.
Drones have a definitive cost advantage over satellites because they can be deployed to service without the expense of a costly rocket launch. And quite unlike satellites, a drone’s payload can be retrieved and reused. The economics of drone use makes more sense in many capacities. Besides, it’s the sensors and hardware attached to a satellite that make the machine useful once it is in orbit. With comparable sensors and hardware aboard a drone flying at severely different altitudes, it’s way easier to repurpose drones for a satellite’s job than one might think.
If the question is “Which satellites can drones replace?” the answer is “Almost all of them.” The major types of satellites orbiting our planet are those used for astronomy, atmospheric studies, communication, navigation, recon and spying, remote sensing, search and rescue, space exploration, and weather. While drones may be quite useless in some of these realms (how does one fly a drone to outer space?), they are quite easily repurposed for many other satellite-oriented applications.
We ought to begin by looking at where drones are already making intrusions into the fields classically dominated by pricey space satellites: aerial photography, agriculture, search and rescue, and recon.
Drones carrying quality cameras can easily position themselves in just the right spot to get exactly the image or video that someone may require, whether it’s for news coverage, a feature film, or a car commercial. You only need look as far as a real estate agent’s sweeping shot of a booming property for sale. Odds are it was filmed with help from a drone.
Agricultural satellites are in use around the world to help assess crop health, yield, and facilitate environmental analysis to ensure farmers have all the details they need in order to best manage their farms. Imaging systems like Normalized Difference Vegetation Index are effectively special visual sensors pointing down at the ground — different colors in the image tell a different story about what is happening with one’s crops. Already, agriculture-ready drones are popping up for purchase, for the farmer who wants to use technology to gather information on his crops. A drone called the HoneyComb makes use of the same exact NDVI technology normally found on satellites.
The United States military certainly has offensive drones for issuing air strikes, but search and rescue drones are already thing. All a drone needs to operate as a successful search and rescue platform is a worthwhile camera. A volunteer network of 3,000 drone operators called SWARM makes its services available for free to people who need help finding missing persons. When it comes to being in one place and needing to quickly examine areas of miles, drones have already hammered out a niche doing so.
Perhaps closely related to search and rescue, recon and spying applications are easily fit into drones and are in active use by the military today. Small camera-equipped flying machines such as this Black Hornet give live video surveillance of whatever a soldier might need to see in the area. For larger contexts, such as needing to monitor all entrances and exits to a city or specific building, larger drones are already well at work in filling this functionality. The government is great at developing flying eyes in the sky.
Given where Facebook’s attention is right now, communication satellites seem the next most likely to be obsolesced by drones operating at altitude. Google-owned Titan Aerospace is investigating what it can do with solar-powered drones with 50- to 60-meter wingspans, carrying payloads up to 250 pounds. Purportedly, such craft could blanket 17,000 square miles of Earth with wireless connectivity, getting rid of 100 cellular towers at the same time. Furthermore, they could stay in the air for five years at a time.
“Remote sensing” satellites are those that are designed to gain information about an area from a distance. Satellites use remote sensing technology to monitor shoreline changes to our coast, track the movement of sediment, monitor ocean circulation, measure the height of waves, and even track the movement of ice across oceans. Drones could be easily outfitted with the LIDAR technology that makes these applications possible; it’s little more than a laser on a spinning platform that’s connected to a computer to make sense of the data it receives.
Weather-sniffing drones are already in the works, though not in any official capacity. An experimental flight in 2010 saw a Global Hawk drone fly over Tropical Storm Frank, and in 2013 it flew into Tropical Storm Nadine. Each time, the drone spent several hours sampling the weather using onboard sensors to gather data about the storm it was exploring.
One only needs to look at the past few years to note that we are on the precipice of the drone explosion. As the unpiloted airborne vehicles become the new normal for everything from our cell phone service to our Amazon delivery mechanisms, our outer space satellites will increasingly become resigned to their status as space junk.