During the last decade, we’ve all gotten familiar with drones; uncrewed flying vehicles originally created for military purposes. As the production costs fell, they became popular for professional and amateur aerial photography, video recording, and live streaming.
These are some of the ways in which drones have become part of our everyday lives. According to the FAA, there are almost 900,000 drones registered in the United States. More than half of them are used for recreational purposes. But in reality, there are many other applications for drones nowadays.
1. Military drones
Most military drones do not look a lot like recreational drones, but they may still qualify as such. After all, the word “drone” is used as a synonym of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) independently of how it looks or works. This is why the first predecessor of drones may, arguably, be considered to be the balloon.
While balloons were originally used for observation purposes, they were also used for offensive purposes.
In fact, the earliest uncrewed aerial vehicle was likely used in battle in 1849, when Austrian soldiers used unmanned balloons filled with explosives to attack the city of Venice. While a number of these weaponized balloons blew back and accidentally bombed the Austrian camps, several managed to reach their targets.
The technology was advanced during World War I when the first UAVs were developed in Britain and the USA. The British developed a small radio-controlled aircraft, called the Aerial Target, in 1917; while the American aerial torpedo known as the Kettering Bug first flew in October 1918. However, neither was used operationally during the war.
In the 1930s, the British produced radio-controlled aircraft for use as targets for training purposes. The term ‘drone’ may have been inspired by the name of one of these aircraft, the Queen Bee.
Reconnaissance UAVs were first used on a large scale during the Vietnam War. The U.S. utilized remote sensors and remote-controlled Firebees (a series of target drones) for surveillance.
Since then, UAVs are regularly applied for surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance missions.
Some military drones used today contain weapons such as missiles or bombs and perform drone strikes under real-time human remote control. These kinds of drones are called UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles). These look like airplanes, but they’re much smaller and lighter, as they’re not designed to carry any human passengers.
Sadly, drone attacks are responsible for the deaths of many civilians in Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and other countries in conflict.
2. Delivery drones
Delivery drones may not be mainstream yet, but they are a reality.
In 2014, Alphabet’s drone delivery service Wing became the first drone delivery firm to win approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The service is active in the U.S., Australia, and Finland.
Amazon has also received FAA approval to test its drone delivery service, Amazon Prime Air, which is still under development.
In Turkey, there are ongoing plans to launch freight drones for cargo shipping between cities up to 200 miles apart.
Online food and grocery delivery app Foodpanda tested air-borne food delivery in Singapore last year. The platform has also recently collaborated with Pakistani aerospace company Woot Tech to test the service in Islamabad.
Recently, U.S.’s largest retailer Walmart launched a drone delivery service of health-related products in Farmington, Arkansas with the help of DroneUp, a Virginia-based startup providing drone technology. The drones are controlled by flight engineers and they’re being used specifically for the delivery of medicinal products to people living within a 1.15-mile radius from a Walmart store in Farmington. There are plans to expand the service to other Arkansas locations in the near future.
Drones carrying medical supplies are already saving lives in remote communities. About 44% of the world’s population live in rural areas which may not have good roads nearby or may be difficult to reach by land. In these cases, delivery drones have helped a lot.
Since 2016, American drone company Zipline has provided blood delivery services to remote, hard to reach areas in Rwanda. Zipline is also involved in a similar operation in Ghana, where their drones deliver blood products and vaccines against yellow fever.
Food and medicines are the main goods transported by drones, due to the limitations of the technology. Currently, most commercial drones can’t carry more than 6 lbs (2.7 kg) per package and can’t fly more than 7.5 miles (12 km) round-trip.
3. Rescue drones
Delivery drones containing supplies can be useful in the context of a natural disaster, too. But what if you needed another kind of help?
Drones have been found useful for rescue and search services. Time matters during an emergency, and drones can overcome urban traffic congestion and inaccessible terrain to find victims. UAVs can search for victims from above, using thermal cameras to detect body heat and spot victims’ exact location, which can then be sent via GPS coordinates to rescue teams. Drones can also provide real-time visual information of the situation to help these rescue teams prepare.
Rescue drones can also be used to drop supplies to victims before the rescue team physically arrives in the place. Additionally, they can drop communication devices or contain loudspeakers for the rescue staff to talk to the victims.
Rescue drones have been tested in Japan during Mount Fuji rescue operation trials and in a test in Mozambique. In the U.S., the FAA recently approved two rescue drones for the use of Green Bay Metro Fire Department, Wisconsin.
Rescue drones were also used to airlift stranded dogs after the eruption of a volcano in the Spanish isle of La Palma.
4. Agriculture drones
Agriculture drones are used for crop protection. They can spread the seeds and pesticides from the air and regularly monitor the crop’s growth with aerial digital imaging and other sensors designed to help the farmer detect irrigation issues, soil variations, and pests infestations in their yields.
Agriculture drones can collaborate to solve these problems. Many of them are equipped with tanks that farmworkers can fill with water, herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The drones then fly over the crops spraying these substances on them. This way, they facilitate and automate crop watering, weed and pest control, and other tasks.
Agriculture drones have been found to increase crop production, decrease operation costs, and improve the product’s quality.
5. Badminton drones
Last but not less important, we have drones that focus on inclusivity. The Digital Nature Group of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, has recently built a noisy drone that helps the visually impaired play badminton.
It’s a very creative application for drones that promotes physical activity among visually impaired people, who otherwise may be unable to play certain sports due to not being able of checking their surroundings.
These drones replace the badminton ball, which can be too small and too fast for people with low vision to detect. The drones are “hit” by a racket that has sensors in its frame instead of a net. The sensors emulate the hit and send the drone in the other player’s direction. As it flies, the drone emits a loud noise so that the players can hear it coming.
What do you think of all of these applications for drones? One thing is clear: the drones are here to stay, especially if we keep finding new ways of using them.