Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are commonly known, have been around for longer than most people realise. The technology was originally developed for military purposes, but it is increasingly finding other uses, including here in Vietnam. By Brett Davis, photos by GlobalVision’s Asia Flycam.

Founder of online retailing giant Amazon, Jeff Bezos, garnered worldwide attention when he announced in late 2013 that the company was exploring the option of delivering lightweight products via UAVs. A number of hurdles such as regulatory approvals, safety and the limitations of current technology mean that it’s unlikely you will have your next paperback descend from the skies, however the concept focused attention on the possibilities for these aircraft in everyday life.

Pilotless aircraft have actually been around since the early 20th century and were used for things such as target practice for trainee pilots. Today, these fixed-wing and rotor UAVs have civilian applications that include aerial film making and photography, scientific research, oil and gas exploration, forest fire detection, environmental conservation and disaster relief to name just a few.

The world of sports has also got in on the act, with a greater range of filming options available through the use of UAVs. In the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, UAVs were used to film the skiing and snowboarding events.

Swiss company Global Vision Communication has been at the forefront of imaging technology for a decade and a half, including using UAVs to capture aerial photographs and videos. Asia Flycam is the brandname used by their office in Ho Chi Minh City to service their Asian clients.

The company’s CEO Jan-Mathieu Donnier says that Global Vision’s UAVs have been used for aerial mapping, filming television commercials and movies and creating 360-degree aerial virtual tours. However, having parcels delivered by drones may be a little way off yet.

“With the current state of the technology, this is not possible. There needs to be a revolution in the battery capabilities before this can happen,” Donnier says. “There will be a whole redefinition of delivery and distribution concept. It is not going to be delivered to your door. It will go to a centralised district distribution centre. This will also allow for charging the drones, as they will most likely arrive there on a critical level of battery.”

In Vietnam, GlobalVision uses the professional S800 and S1000 UAVs, known as multicopters. They feature six and eight individual propellers (like the blades of a helicopter), and their twin batteries give them an operational flight time of around 15 minutes. They are also fitted with a Sony NEX7 24-megapixel camera that can shoot full HD video. This camera is mounted on a stabilised gimbal that allows it to rotate through 360 degrees and compensate for the movement of the aircraft.

A typical operational team is made up of two people on the ground operating the controls, a pilot and a camera operator. The controls look surprisingly like what most of us would recognise from the remote-controlled cars we played with as kids, except the camera operator’s has the addition of a screen to enable live viewing of the images coming from the on-board camera.

You can acquire a pretty basic and fun-to-fly unit for about $1,500, but professional drones like those used by Global Vision are much more expensive at around $15,000. And that’s before you start looking at specific camera equipment.

“With a machine like [the S800] which is about 10 kilos, if you don’t know how to fly you can cause big damage. That is why you must start with the smaller ones. It is not hard to fly properly but you have to be very focused on safety.” Donnier says. “If you are not careful you might end up crashing a very valuable asset.”

Humans can also be taken out of the equation. Donnier explains that for certain technical assignments such as mapping, where the aircraft flies a set grid pattern, it can be preprogrammed via GPS coordinates to follow certain path and perform precise operations along the way.

These maps can also be integrated with the 360-degree virtual tours and video captured by the drone camera.

“This technology really is at the edge of imaging and computer science,” Donnier says. “We are proud pioneers of a technology that is helping show the world from a new perspective.”