photo credit Jae C.Hong
Drones are some of the most controversial pieces of technology that have emerged in recent years. Inextricably linked to ideas of remote-control warfare, government surveillance and – perhaps most worryingly – Russian pyromaniacs, drones are often seen as tools of fear and destruction. But is there another side to the maligned technology? To paraphrase Monty Python: what might drones do for us?
Drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles, as they are more properly known – are aircraft without a human pilot aboard. They have existed in one form or another since the mid-1800’s when the ever-inventive Austrians loaded hot-air balloons with bombs controlled by timed fuses, intending to lay waste to the city of Venice. Unfortunately for the Austrians, a change in wind direction blew several of their balloons back over the Austrian lines, much to the amusement of the besieged Venetians. While the technology has advanced since then, their primary usage hasn’t, and the main market for drones is still in battlefield surveillance and aerial warfare.
However, the rapid rise in drone ownership and production since the turn of the century is providing opportunities far removed from the combat role with which they are most associated. Companies such as Matternet are leading the way in using drones for disaster relief in areas where conventional aircraft are either too big or too slow. Matternet, a Silicon Valley start-up, has helped in the Haiti relief effort by using drones to quickly deliver medicines to remote areas.
Such efforts are slowly gaining recognition throughout the wider community. “There was initially a lot of scepticism around this – is this really real? is this really ready?” says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. “Organisations are now reaching out to us, trying to convince us to work with them.”
This new frontier for drones is inspiring others too. Take Alec Momont, an engineering graduate from Delft University in the Netherlands, who has developed a prototype ambulance drone which is able to deliver a defibrillator to first responders and reduce the time before a heart attack victim receives first aid. Because most bystanders are not trained medical responders, the drone is equipped with a webcam that allows medical professionals to deliver instructions to people at the scene, including guidance on how to use the defibrillator. Alec hopes his ambulance drone would save hundreds of lives in the next five years. “Currently, only 20% of untrained people are able to successfully apply a defibrillator” he says. “This rate can be increased to 90% if people are provided with instructions at the scene.”
But what of Amazon’s much-publicised efforts to use drones to deliver packages to your doorstep? “Not in the short to medium term,” says Dr Tony Dodd, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Systems Engineering at the University of Sheffield, “It’s technically unfeasible. They’re unlikely to get the certification that they need, no matter what they claim”. More realistic projects, he believes, include uses in the agriculture industry where drones are already being used to carry out land surveys and monitor crop health.
Many of these new applications will require new infrastructure. Drones can’t fly forever, and increased numbers of charging stations will be required if the use of drones in everyday life is going to become more common. Regulation, too, will inevitably be tightened in the near future following an increasing number of near misses with commercial planes. Might this hurt the burgeoning drone industry?
“I think increased regulation will actually benefit commercial operators” says Dodd. “It will help to clarify the rules and allow them to fly much more safely.” Irresponsible flying, he predicts, will eventually become a thing of the past.
What is sure to continue, however, is the increasing use of drones across society. We shouldn’t be blind to the legitimate concerns that the technology raises – both militaristic and commercial – but at the same time we should remember the massive potential that they offer us in all walks of life.