One of the things we hear all the time about the drone industry is how lucrative everyone predicts it will be (not to mention how lucrative it already is). Article after article talks about projections for the future, and how VC investors are pouring money into drone startups.
We also hear a lot about drones being used to kill people overseas, both by the U.S. government, and more recently by terrorist organizations.
Add to this the concerns the industry has had to work through surrounding privacy and people worried about having buzzing aerial nuisances flying over their homes, and it can feel like we still have a long ways to go toward changing the public perception about drones and their daily usefulness in the world.
But we all know that there’s a lot more to drones.
Drones do lots of good in the world, and the ways they can be used for good seem to be growing every day. (There’s even a “UA Drones for Good” competition held in Dubai every year.)
Here is our list of some of the ways that drones are being used for good right now. Know of others? Reach out and let us know on Twitter using the hashtag #dronesforgood.
We’d love to see this list grow!
1. Providing WiFi and Cell Service in Disaster Scenarios
The FAA has officially approved the use of drones to restore cell service in Puerto Rico, following the devastation brought about there by Hurricane Maria.
The drones used for these operations are called Flying COWs (Cell on Wings), and were created by AT&T to act like a flying cell tower. When operational, these drones are able to quickly restore voice, data, and internet service to those who have been without them following a huge disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake.
In the next few years, we hope to see more and more of these drones keeping us connected right after disasters, at times when we previously would have expected to lose coverage for weeks or even months.
Watch this video to learn more about how drones are helping restore connectivity in Puerto Rico:
2. Inexpensive Mapping
As drones become cheaper, they’re becoming a viable tool for countries with fewer resources to use for mapping projects.
The Zanzibar mapping initiative, featured in the video below, has the goal of creating a high resolution map of the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, covering an area of over 1400 square miles, by using low-cost drones instead of satellite images or manned planes.
These maps are not purely informational. Zanzibar Commission for Lands will use the maps for better planning, land tenure, and environmental monitoring, which means that drones are playing a vital role in helping to implement sustainable practices in Zanzibar.
3. Assistance Following Hurricanes and Storms
During the devastating hurricane season of 2017 drones came to the rescue in many different locales and scenarios, from helping in Houston after Hurricane Harvey to helping in Miami after Hurricane Irma.
Drones were used to identify the location of hurricane survivors that needed to be rescued, to assess damage, to evaluate routes toward saving those caught up in flood conditions, and to collect vital information on the status of places that would otherwise be impossible to reach.
During Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina last year, a drone helped locate a man trapped in his home during a flood so that authorities could rescue him.
4. Mapping and Preserving Archaeological Sites
As time passes, archaeological sites can become degraded, and even fall into danger of disappearing beyond recognition.
Drones are helping archaeologists to create detailed 3D maps of important sites, so that even if they do fade with time, an accurate replica will persist that can be studied and used as a resource for future generations.
Drone mapping provides a fast, accurate, and noninvasive way to document archeological sites, creating a historical record of a country’s cultural heritage and giving archaeologists a rich set of data and models to be used for further research.
In 2013 Benoit Duverneuil founded the research group Aerial Digital Archeology and Preservation, which aims to further the field of drones in archeology and train others to implement the latest techniques. Learn more about his work on the research group’s Facebook page.
5. Catching Poachers in the Act
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been hard at work trying to stop poachers on the open oceans, and they’ve been using drones to help them do it.
Check out the video below, which was a finalist for the 2017 InterDrone Film Festival, to see how conservation activists are using drones to nab poachers.
6. Forestry and Conservation
By helping to create detailed maps, drones can assist in detecting illegal logging operations, as well as tracking and monitoring overall tree count and the health of a forest.
Using NDVI imagery, areas of dry vegetation can be monitored, which can assist with forest fire prevention. Maps can also help identify dead trees, revealing whether a disease might be affecting the forest.
Because drones can capture so much data all at once, and because software to analyze that data is becoming more and more robust, drones are shaping up to be the perfect tool to help conservationists and forestry officials to track the overall health of a forest. Such a project would be incredibly time consuming on foot, not to mention much more complicated—imagine manually counting the number of diseased trees in an area, instead of having software automatically analyze an image shot by a drone and informing you.
7. Law Enforcement
Police Departments around the U.S. are starting to incorporate drones into their operations.
Police officers are using drones to help assess damage following floods, fires, and other natural disasters; to create detailed orthomosaic maps of crime scenes, and even of places where a crime might be likely to happen so that they can use that knowledge to respond more quickly to potential threats; for accident reconstruction; and for fugitive apprehension, among others.
Below is a picture of Tom Agos of the Gurnee Police Department in Gurnee, IL, flying a drone to assess water damage in the town following a flood. Read our interview with Tom to learn more about his work with drones in Gurnee.
8. Finding and Safely Detonating Land Mines
A 14 year old boy in India named Harshwardhan Zala made the news recently for inventing a drone that could detect and detonate land mines.
The drone comes equipped with infrared, an RGB sensor, and a thermal meter along with a 21-megapixel camera with a mechanical shutter that can take high-resolution pictures. It works by detecting land mines from a distance, and then, once the area has been cleared, dropping a small bomb to destroy the land mine safely.
Harshwardhan says he first thought of the idea when he was watching television and learned that “a large number of soldiers succumb to injuries sustained due to land mine blasts while defusing them manually.”
His first invention to address this problem was a robot for detecting and detonating land mines, but this meant the loss of a robot for each land mine detonated. The anti-land mine drone was the next iteration in Harshwardhan’s inventive process, since it can detect land mines from a distance, without risking detonation.
9. Fighting Fires—Reconnaissance, Identifying Smoldering Hot Spots, and More
Drones help firefighters with their jobs in a number of ways.
Using aerial thermography, a drone can fly over the sight of a fire that is almost out to identify smoldering hot spots that might not be visible to the naked eye. Aerial thermography can also help to quickly find potential fire victims who need immediate medical attention in fires that are still smoldering.
Drones also provide key information for firefighters in big, intense forest fires and other types of blazes, where the fire is so big and stretches so far that it can be hard to know exactly what steps to take using the information available on the ground.
Knowing how a fire burns and where it might move next is the most important part of firefighting.
– David Celino,Chief Fire Warden, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
10. Saving Lives in Search & Rescue Missions
Search & rescue scenarios are all about time. If someone is lost in the woods in harsh conditions, the chances of survival all come down to how long they’re out there before someone finds them.
Drones help search & rescue teams find people quickly using aerial thermography to identify heat signatures, and they can do this much more quickly and effectively than a team of people searching on the ground. Drones can also be helpful for getting an aerial view of an area where a search & rescue mission needs to take place, in order to help guide the work being done by people on the ground.
In one recent story from Canada, a search and rescue team found a group of five missing snowboarders and skiers that had been missing for two days using UAVs with infrared cameras.
In the future, every progressive SAR team will have a drone or access to a drone for a search.
– Kamloops Search and Rescue, of Kamloops, British Columbia
11. Teaching—and Exciting—Students about STEM and Coding
DroneBlocks and DronePan are two programs that come with apps teachers can use to help students get involved in coding and generally interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields using drones.
The DroneBlocks app makes programming drone missions accessible for middle and elementary school students through a familiar, easy-to-use “block” programming interface.
DroneBlocks provides everything teachers need, including a full curriculum and support, to launch a drone-based STEM program. They combine curricula materials with hands-on work with drones to help teachers create a project-based learning environment where kids can get excited about STEM learning.
Best of all, the DroneBlocks app is completely free.
DroneBlocks empowers STEM leaders to educate in the context of unprecedented engagement.”
– DroneBlocks website
Watch this video to learn a little more about DroneBlocks.
Getting started in your classroom:
Check out the “What You’ll Need” page on the DroneBlocks website to get started (hint: the list is really short; it looks like they’ve made it as easy as possible for educators to step in and implement right out of the box).
If you’re short on funding, DroneBlocks has a funding ideas page on their website, and they also provide 8 lesson plans for free in case you just want to dip your toes in the water. All in all, this looks like an excellent way to get kids excited about STEM.
DronePan makes it easy to capture aerial panoramas with the click of a button using a variety of drones from DJI (the Phantom 3, Phantom 4, Inspire 1, Inspire 2 or Mavic Pro drone all work with DronePan).
DronePan takes 20 photos at the necessary yaw and pitch to create photos that can be easily stitched together for a 360 spherical panorama.
The process takes less than 2 minutes, and produces some really incredible aerial panoramas (scroll down to see links to examples).
Check out these examples of panoramas created by DronePan users. Seriously, do it. They are amazing.
Getting started in your classroom:
Right now DronePan runs on iOS devices and an Android version is currently in beta. You can learn more about new releases and updates by joining the DronePan Facebook group.
By the way, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout out here to Marisa Vickery, Facilitator of Learning & Innovation for the Dripping Springs school district in Dripping Springs, Texas. Marisa reached out to tell us to add DroneBlocks to our list of 70 Drone Companies to Watch in 2017, and she was absolutely right. Thanks Marisa!
12. Delivering Blood and Other Crucial Medical Supplies to Remote Areas
Forget Flirtey and AmazonAir. Zipline isn’t just testing the use of drones for deliveries, it’s actually making them. And what’s more, it’s delivering crucial medical supplies (and not just pizzas or a Kindle Fire.)
More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Because of this, over 2.9 million children under age five die every year. And up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood.
Zipline made the news a few months back when it announced a partnership with the government of Rwanda to deliver blood and other crucial medical supplies to rural areas that are difficult to reach by land. Watch this video to learn more about Zipline’s partnership with Rwanda.
13. Making More Food with Fewer Resources
Drone applications in agriculture are booming, and new ag-focused drone companies and products are being announced all the time.
UAVs allow farmers to collect more actionable data about their crops than has ever before been possible. Also, new data-focused platforms like RaptorMaps are helping to analyze and use the data gathered. RaptorMaps is an MIT-founded precision agriculture company that employs crop-mapping drones to better pinpoint crop damage, offering farmers 100% data coverage of their land.
Worldwide, about a third of all crops are lost. It’s easy to blame bugs, but really, a lack of information is destroying these plants.
– Nikhil Vadhavka, CEO of RaptorMaps
And it’s that lack of information that’s vital to a farmer. Crop disease, pests, weeds, and weather damage are just a few areas where timely data can help save large swaths of crops.
As one might expect, monitoring acres and acres of land can be difficult and costly to farmers. Many types of crop inspections and maintenance are performed manually. More pesticides are being used than needed. Imagine lots of driving and walking and note-taking in the field. Hours and hours of work on a regular basis.
Large farming operations hire scouts and agrochemical companies to tend their fields, but when you have 1,000 acres—just picture 1,000 football fields—it’s impossible to keep track simply by walking through them.
By helping to analyze crop yields and providing key data on soil quality and other crucial factors, the ag sector of the drone industry holds a huge amount of promise.
If we can get more food from fewer resources, everyone on the planet will benefit.
14. Keeping Our Skies Safe
The proliferation of drones has also led to new technologies to control drones, like the anti-drone gun, which can stop a drone mid-flight and force it to land (with no damage being done to the drone).
In addition, many drone companies are working alongside NASA and the FAA to create Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTMs) to help coordinate flights so that the skies stay safe and regulated for everyone.
The primary goal of these new drone-control technologies is to keep our airspaces safe. Drones near airports pose a big potential risk to airplanes, and it’s crucial to have technology that can immediately clear the skies.
If an unauthorized drone appears in the airspace at an airport, it could post a serious threat to the passengers aboard airplanes, both as a potential hazard for the planes in flight but also because it could be carrying a bomb. These new technologies allow for the immediate control of rogue UAVs, so that everyone is kept safe.
In addition, we’ve read reports of drones being used to deliver drugs and other contraband to prisoners, and this technology is also helpful in preventing this kind of illicit behavior.
Unmanned Traffic Management Systems
UTMs are the way of the future when it comes to drone flights, especially in populous places.
NASA defines a UTM as “a cloud-based system that will help manage traffic at low altitudes and avoid collisions of UASs being operated beyond visual line of sight.”
By designing systems that will allow many drones to share the same airspace, drone companies, NASA, and the FAA are working to create a safer future for our airspaces.
We need a way to organize the UAS traffic, whether that’s by crisscrossing or with a bike lane or HOV lane kind of construct. The system can make these things happen based on demand. UTM is a virtual system.
– Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, UTM Principal Investigator at the NASA Ames Research Center
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