Drones are everywhere these days. Once used exclusively by the military (who are still leading research and development in this field), it is now available to everyone, from hobbyists to engineers. To date, tens of millions of civilian drones, ranging from less than $50 to more than $90,000 have been sold worldwide. In 2016 alone, 2.7 million of consumer drones were sold, and this number is expected to rise to 7 million by 2020. Some have predicted that consumer drones are the next smartphones…soon everyone will have one.
What is it about drones that captures our fascination so much?
As drones are equipped with AI, GPS, collision avoidance, voice recognition, infrared/heat vision, motion sensors, etc., they can do so much more and their range of applications multiplies exponentially. The Drones for Good Award from the UAE is given to innovators who use drone technology to improve people’s lives and provide positive technological solutions to modern day issues.
Humans have an impressive history of finding unintended uses, and drones are proving this ability more than ever. We take a look at just some of the unusual uses for drones that we have come up with.
Drones for Transport and Delivery
Whether you like it or not, drone delivery is soon about to be a reality. The first package delivery by drone in the US was a public trial of medicine delivery by Australian firm Flirtey in collaboration with the US Federal Aviation Authority. Logistics company DHL has already made over 130 successful autonomous drone deliveries using their parcelcopter.
In direct competition with Prime Air, Amazon’s drone-based delivery system, Google launched Project Wing, its drone research division, and is conducting test drone food deliveries and has their own fixed-wing drone for carrying packages.
In 2013 the first remotely piloted passenger jet flew across the UK and logistics firms are calling for fully automated cargo jets to reduce costs and improve safety. Drones make a lot of sense when delivering supplies in an emergency to areas with unreliable road conditions, especially to places where people can’t go — like regions that are under quarantine and in need of medical supplies. However, their widespread use is held back by their limited flight time and cost. In response to these hindrances, DARPA is designing a disposable paper drone that disintegrates or biodegrades after reaching its objective. Anticipating air traffic to increase due to UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), NASA is developing an automatic low altitude air traffic control system called UTM for autonomous drones.
Drones for Journalism & Entertainment
As they are less costly than helicopters and pilots, it is no surprise that media companies already use UAVs for capturing footage. Their manoeuvrability and price allow reporters to get closer to breaking news or weather stories, and to get footage they normally would not see. In the University of Missouri, journalism students have drone piloting and reporting as part of their course curriculum.
Along with drone piloting schools, 2016 saw the debut of two drone racing events: The National Drone Racing Championship in Governors Island in New York and the World Drone Prix in Dubai. The latter is held in an outdoor track and offers a pool prize of $1 million.
Scientists fly drones into extreme weather conditions where they can collect real-time data. A group of mechanical engineering students are working on a project that will fly drones into the middle of tornadoes in an effort to learn more about the inner workings of these destructive storms. Volcanologists use drones to study volcanic activity from a much closer vantage point than before, giving them better data from which to create models and make predictions.
Drones for Agriculture
Drones are becoming an indispensable tool for the agricultural industry. Farmers use drones to conduct efficient aerial surveillance of large tracts of land and irrigation systems, dust crops and monitor livestock, water levels and plant health.
Facebook and Google are testing solar-powered drones that can remain aloft for weeks at a time at altitudes up to 30 km (30000 metres). Facebook’s Aquila means to bring wireless connectivity to remote areas and developing countries, while Google is working towards next-generation high-speed 5G data.
Drones for Safety & Security
Firefighters and police already deploy drones for surveillance, search and rescue, and to go into inaccessible or dangerous areas with no risk to human life. There is a design for a submarine drone that can rescue someone who is drowning, and one designed for detecting sharks using image analysis and computer vision techniques. Amazon has patented a shoulder-mounted “umanned aerial vehicle assistant” which can aid law enforcement in tracking assailants and assessing situations. A Dutch university student envisions a network of ambulances drone that can deliver emergency medical equipment within minutes of calling for help. A drone for detecting and destroying landmines is being designed by a 14-year-old from Gujarat, India.
. Drones for Art
There is art being created using drones, with the first documented case of drone graffiti being done on a billboard in New York City. There is an online drone platform where you can fly a drone over a location of your choice, controlling it from your mobile or laptop. Intel has set a world record for flying the most number of drones simultaneously:
As we enter into the drone revolution, it is likely that more uses will be discovered for these amazing robots. Keep in mind that drones are tools–sophisticated, powerful, amazing–but tools nonetheless. They can be used for virtuous and malicious purposes, for good and for ill. They can be used to deliver vaccines to disaster areas, or contraband to prisoners, to monitor wildlife to deter poachers, or to give hunters another means with which to better track their prey.