What are drones, and why are they a hot topic?

The term ‘drone’ covers a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Many kinds of remotely-controlled aircraft can be called drones, and they differ greatly in scale, size and operation. Uses range from military, surveillance and special operation UAVs (also used in a growing number of civil applications such as policing and firefighting), which can be as large as airplanes, to small amateur civilian and commercial UAVs, used for applications like filming, cargo collections and 3D mapping.

What makes drones useful?

Drones put dangerous or difficult places within easy reach. Equipped with cameras, they give a powerful bird’s eye view of the world, radically changing the way we map, survey and see. They can be equipped with other recording devices, carry samples, and deliver products, making them invaluable tools in research and business.

Drone technology is rapidly becoming more usable, affordable, and feature-driven, offering new tools for creators and cultural organisations.


The word ‘drone’ has been most often associated with military aircraft like the Predator, with its distinctive shape. Hobby drones may be small and inexpensive, with the cheapest models starting at about £30 on Amazon and ranging from £500-2000 for the popular DJI Phantom models available at high street stores.


Why are drones such a hot topic?

As drones become more popular both among hobbyists and commercial businesses, their use has caused controversy as well as excitement. The unmanned nature of drones makes them ideal for military use, but some wonder whether an autonomous flying device may dehumanise attack operations. Several artists are engaging with this concern (read more here). There are also concerns about privacy. Most of the consumer drones now are equipped with onboard cameras, which means people could face being recorded at any time, perhaps while being unaware of who is controlling the drone. This has raised red flags and a preemptive backlash. In the USA, for example, a project called  NoFlyZones allows people to register the air space around their homes as no fly zones; this may be one example of how people will resist the all-seeing gaze of the drone if and when it does become a ubiquitous recording device.

Despite these concerns, numerous industries are adopting drones and the applications are ever growing. The many uses of drones now include aerial photography, aerial video (of great interest to the entertainment industry), animal tracking, fire-fighting, search and rescue, surveying, 3D mapping, industrial inspection, conservation, crop management, climate change research and more.

The rapid pace of cross-disciplinary advancement makes this a fertile field for artists, who draw from and move between areas of application as they explore and create.


There is more information on commercially available drone types in our CREATIVE PRODUCTION section, with some suggestions as to what might be the best drone for your creative goals.

Next page in toolkit: How can drones be used as creative tools?