When you say drones to someone, they usually react either with excitement or trepidation. They’re seen as either an incredible futuristic toy, or a major disrupter that will turn whole industries inside out and upside down at the same time as potentially saving quite literally millions of lives! Whichever camp you sit in, recent press coverage will have done nothing to diminish the furore.
Announcements of successful trials of pizza delivery by Domino’s Pizza and Flirtey in New Zealand, and of parcels by JD the Chinese version of Amazon, together with the “discovery” of Amazon’s testing site secreted behind a wall of hay bales in the English countryside, have all made the reality of a sky full of drones that little bit more tangible. However, according to a recent YouGov survey in the US, 4 in 10 Americans are less convinced as they wouldn’t trust any drone delivery service!
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were first used commercially in Japan in the early 1980’s in agriculture as an efficient way to spray pesticides on rice fields. Research by PWC earlier this year estimated that the commercial potential of drones could be worth $127 billion to industries globally. While, the use of drones has been clearly evidenced in military service, their use in commercial applications has lagged behind primarily due to regulatory challenges.
Poland in 2013 was the first country to introduce a complete legal framework and associated institutions to regulate commercial use. Globally, of the 191 member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), 63 have some regulations in place; nine have pending regulations, and ﬁve have temporarily banned the use of drones.
Why do people have a negative perception of drones? According to the non-profit group Open Briefing, the world’s first civil society intelligence agency, the primary concern with drones is the irresponsibility of users that neglect security hazards, show a lack of common sense, and are reckless in their drone use. Many incidents have been widely publicised; causing national security alerts through flying around Government buildings or other prohibited areas, interfering with aviation through invading airport airspace, disturbing sports events and athletes, and even worse, fire fighting efforts and of course smuggling drugs! The list goes on.
The situation is fast evolving due to the diversity of potential commercial applications. People have gotten much more creative and resourceful in the ways that they are using them beyond the more obvious jobs. I want to say the sky’s the limit but, they’ve even been used in space! Here are seven of the more imaginative ways that drones are being employed that might just convince you that the good far far outweighs the bad!
1) Finding lost civilisations
Thermal images captured by drones have allowed archaeologists to peer under the earth’s surface to discover never seen before structures. In New Mexico, drones revealed a 1,000 year old village in its entirety, and in Petra, Jordan, a giant stone platform that had previously eluded detection.
2) Saving endangered species and stopping wildlife poaching and trafficking
Black-footed ferrets in the US are under threat of extinction due to a plague carried by fleas. More than 90% of their diet is made up of prairie dogs, and the sylvatic plague affects both of them. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are developing drones to drop oral-based vaccine-laced bait containing peanut butter and the vaccine for the prairie dogs. A trial is planned for later this year.
Air Shepherd, in partnership with the Lindbergh Foundation, are using drones to stop elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. The threat of extinction is real for both species, with 40,000 elephants and over 1,200 rhinos killed by poachers in 2013 alone. Illegal poaching is very lucrative, with a single elephant tusk worth $75,000 and rhino horns worth over $65,000 per kilo. Poachers tend to operate under the cover of darkness which makes it extremely difficult for the rangers to find them before they kill. Drones with infrared cameras and GPS are being used to send back thermal imaging of both animals and poachers and are proving highly effective.
3) Transporting human organs and blood
Chinese EHang, a leading UAV tech company, has partnered with pharmaceutical and lung transplant tech company, Lung Biotechnology, to create a Manufactured Organ Transplant vehicle system, or MOTH. A MOTH will be used to transfer donated organs to people in emergency situations and will be pre-programmed to stop at strategically located hospitals and recharging pads to ensure that organs are delivered while still viable for transplantation. The company anticipates delivering hundreds of organs a day.
Doctors at US Stony Brook University Medicine partnered with start-up drone company Vayu Inc. in July to conduct the first autonomous, long-distance flight of a drone to land and retrieve biomedical samples. Blood samples were collected by a health care worker in a village in a remote rural region in Madagascar, and the drone delivered them to a central research facility for testing.
4) Ambulance drones saving lives
The Defikopter is a drone that parachutes defibrillators to heart-attack victims and emergency responders. Created by Definetz, a German not for profit organisation in partnership with Height Tech, the Defikopter is controlled by a GPS-enabled smartphone app, which lets users request an emergency defibrillator.
Belgian engineering graduate Alec Momont of the Delft Technical University has developed an ambulance drone which consists of an all-purpose first aid kit containing a compact built in defibrillator, CPR aids, medicine and other supplies that a trained First Aider can use until an ambulance arrives. Additionally, the drone features built-in speakers to free up the caller’s hands and live video that streams what’s happening back to a medical team.
5) Battling disease
To fight disease-ridden tsetse flies in Africa, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Embention are using drones to try to control trypanosomosis, better known as ‘sleeping sickness’ in Ethiopia. Trypanosomosis is transmitted by Tsetse flies and destroys both human and domestic animal populations across Africa. The drones are being used to try to control the spread of the disease by releasing sterile male insects, reducing and eventually eliminating the threat. To be effective, 100 sterile males need to be released per square kilometre weekly.
6) Detecting and clearing land mines
An estimated 100 million mines remain buried beneath former war zones, where they kill or maim an average of 10 people per day. Using conventional methods it would take more than a millennium to deactivate them all. The Mine Kafon Drone (MKD) can clear a minefield up to 20 times faster and for 200 times less cost and with far less risk to life. The inventors believe they can clear them in little over a decade!
The drone flies over a suspected zone and creates a 3D aerial map highlighting all potentially hazardous areas with GPS co-ordinates. It then uses a metal detector arm to find the mines. It then attaches its gripper arm to drop a small, timed detonator on top of the mine. Once it is safely out of range, the detonator explodes, setting off the mine underneath.
The Mine Kafon Drone has just raised the funding required via Kickstarter to start piloting.
7) Rescuing hikers and other missing people
Canadian Riderless Technologies has invented the Sentry, a portable drone that’s adept at detecting hikers who may be lost in the wilderness. It’s small enough to fit into a backpack and can be unpacked and set off in 10 seconds. It gathers real-time thermal images to find lost hikers, and provides aerial intelligence allowing rescue teams to understand what obstacles lie in their way.
Researchers at the University of Zurich, NCCR Robotics and Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence have developed technology that enables drones to follow man-made tracks and trails, and can correctly identify with an accuracy rating of 85%.
US Project Lifesaver is a non-profit organisation that locates people with autism, Alzheimer’s or other cognitive conditions that makes them prone to wandering off. Members wear a tracking device around their wrist of ankle. If they go missing, both public safety agencies and drones are used to track them down.
And if all that weren’t service enough to humanity, there is even the Hover, billed as the perfect selfie camera!