Enter the Drone Age: Unmanned Aircraft Do More With Less

Look up into America’s skies today and you just might see an unmanned aerial vehicle – with the mechanics improving and the prices dropping rapidly, more and more people have acquired drones for their own use and have been testing the limits of drone technology and pushing it to greater heights.

For such a tiny aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage–literally and metaphorically speaking. Some find the notion of robotic (and potentially armed) aircraft to be profoundly disturbing, while others revel in their personal, programmable potential.

Defined as aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight – typically following a mission from point to point – drones come in many different shapes, sizes, and applications. Although much of the recent news surrounding drones has been less than positive, there are many entrepreneurs and hobbyists working to stifle the stigma of airborne, unmanned aircraft. Rising above doomsday predictions of heavy government surveillance and Amazon marketing run amok, numerous initiatives are proving drones’ capacity for good. Civilians across the country are now operating their own DIY drones from home, while constructing even loftier dreams for their use in the future. Since the drone genie is out of the bottle, it’s now up to us to harness this powerful new technology and see what UAVs can do to make life better.

One high-profile proponent of non-military use drones is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg is currently developing a program that will employ both drones and satellite internet to deliver broadband access to rural communities throughout the world. Zuckerberg’s program is coming at the same time as Google’s Project Loon, which transmits wi-fi to rural areas via hot-air balloons. Zuckerberg has publicly stated that the drones will prove more reliable than the balloons, as the drones allow for a higher level of control.

Other non-militaristic uses for drones range from playful to highly practical, encompassing everything from pizza-delivery schemes to real estate listings. Police and law enforcement officials have determined that drones are just as effective as canine units, and can be operated for as little as $3.36 per hour. UAVs are also being used in specialized search and rescue missions, offering support for disasters like fires as well as assisting in the break up of human trafficking rings. Drones can also transport medicine, reaching those in remote villages quickly, even delivering defibrillators to those who might not survive otherwise.

The drones’ capacities for extended flights (and their ability to reach great heights) means that they’re also useful for conservationists, geologists, land surveyors, and other academic researchers. From the perspective of a drone, the EPA can test air quality and look for environmental violations and NASA can even test the makeup of the ozone layer. Firefighters have also found drones to be a useful tool, using them to locate wildfires, plot their movement, and launch an attack on the blaze. Indonesian researchers began a project in 2011 using a UAV to monitor a population of endangered Sumatran orangutans, building their own drone for $2,000 and using it on forest and wildlife imaging missions. Enthusiasm for the project has only grown, and the group is currently raising money to do conservation work with Mongolian snow leopards.

Looking forward, it’s easy to imagine drones being put to work on environmental projects, storm tracking, law enforcement, and myriad other uses beyond the military. And while managing drones domestically comes with its own host of challenges, their predicted growth and unlimited potential are an inspiration to those looking to take their dreams to the skies.

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