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Drones for Good

A 2013 march against drones (photograph by Debra Sweet/Flickr)

Drone. The word itself inspires dread. Despite passionate defenders, the unmanned craft has become the great symbol of civilian casualties in a war with no end and no clear enemy, prosecuted from an antiseptic distance. So provocative is the term “drone” that when Jeff Bezos suggested delivering packages for Amazon with drones, many reacted with a mixture of panic and ridicule. The company quickly became a late night punch line.

The connotation of “drone” has become so negative that many of the engineers, scientists, and artists pursuing positive uses for the technology prefer to call their craft UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Moreover, those positive uses are many and far in scope and have potential benefits far beyond parcel delivery. Here are just a few examples:

Art & Performance

Quebec’s acrobatics juggernaut Cirque du Soleil recently teamed up with a technology institute called ETH Zurich and their offshoot production studio Verity Studios to produce a stunning video called “Sparked,” in which a performer dances with “magic” flying lampshades. Each colorful and illuminated shade hid a small drone, which had been meticulously pre-programmed. The widely distributed video captured only a taste of what kind of performances and visual imagery might come from the technology, and the Cirque organization reportedly hopes to be able to use drones in live shows.

Meanwhile, camera operators and special effects crews have begun to use the unmanned craft to obtain complicated, previously cost prohibitive aerial shots for movies and television shows. International projects like Skyfall and the Harry Potter films have used drone technology without running afoul of authorities, while American filmmakers have thus far had to go guerrilla. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street contains several aerial shots that were obtained by a camera mounted to an octocopter, which might not have been quite legal given FAA red tape. Fortunately for these American filmmakers, the FAA recently granted permission for six special effects companies to use drone technology to shoot film and television.

Visual artists have also begun exploring uses for drone technology. The graffiti artist KATSU has developed a spray-painting drone, ideal for the acrophobic street artist looking to decorate high up and otherwise inaccessible surfaces. With permission, obviously. For photographers, Live Science recently wrote about a group of scientists at MIT are working on a tiny drone that would contain flashes for the purpose of assisting photographers in lighting their subjects, whether they be human or animal, animate or inanimate. 

News Gathering

The Fresno Bee was one of the many news organizations to begin testing drone technology as a means of news gathering, though they were also treated to a cease and desist letter from the FAA. The Bee argued that the cost of the drones, from $600 to $1,200, was far cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the use of a standard helicopter.

Local television stations and national networks like CNN are also interested in the technology, especially now that the FAA is moving toward making such craft legal. Recognizing that there are plenty of ethical implications to using this technology — picture tiny, flying paparazzi crashing George and Amal’s wedding — the University of Missouri’s journalism program has begun to formally study the use of drones in news gathering, and will hopefully come up with ethical guidelines that will balance privacy and air traffic safety with freedom of the press. 

Drone in the forest (photograph by Sam Beebe/Flickr)

Environmental Conservation 

Since drones are cheaper, quieter, more maneuverable, and have an all around lower footprint than standard aircraft,  it follows that cash-strapped, sustainability conscious environmental groups and scientific organizations would make use of them. Conservation Drones has the mission of using UAVs to save the planet, designing and repurposing military grade drones for green projects. So far, their craft have been used to track down threats to endangered animals such elephant poachers and whaling vessels, as well as monitor the location and number of animals ranging from birds to great apes.

Scientists in Massachusetts are using drones for several oceanic research purposes, including tracking sea life and mapping the ocean floor. China uses drones to track polluters, while in the in the USA, NASA uses a military surplus drone to study dangerous storms like hurricanes. 

Fire and Rescue

Fire departments and other first responders across the United States are also researching drones of various sizes to aid in search and rescue and firefighting. One fire department in Alabama has obtained a small drone and it hopes will help search burning buildings for those in need of rescue, sparing firefighters the risk that comes with searching hazardous structures.

Drones can also help by searching large or inaccessible areas, such as oceans and mountain ranges. In Nova Scotia, a group of lost hikers were found and rescued with the assistance of a small drone. Larger drones are being developed to actually fight fires by spraying water and foam, and also to carry heavy equipment to remote areas. 

A drone’s eye view of Pevensey Castle in East Sussex, England (photograph by Vicki Burton/Flickr)

Archaeology

Because brick and stone emits different energy than dirt, archaeologists can use a technique called thermography to discover buried structures without disturbing the ground around them. Drones have also proved incredibly useful as they can cut imaging time down from weeks and months to days. This technique recently uncovered an ancient Pueblo burial site, with minimal cultural disturbance. In addition to aerial thermography, drones can be employed to cost effectively and efficiently create detailed maps of archeological sites. 

Toys

Of course, sometimes the best purpose of technology is no purpose at all. All sorts of toy drones are in development, positioned as the next generation of remote control airplanes. One company is now offering a camera-equipped drone to follow you around like a flying puppy. Then again, maybe a puppy won’t be such a hassle, if you can get your drone to walk it.

A drone meets a cow (photograph by Mauricio Lima/Flickr)