Drones, aircraft that are remotely or autonomously piloted with no human onboard, are used in many ways from a hobbyist who flies a $25 drone around for fun on the weekends to a multimillion-dollar military drone that’s becoming a critical part of missions. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones aren’t by default dystopian. While there are scary uses of drones, there are many ways they can be incredibly helpful and fun.
Scariest Use of Drones
We got a peek into the dangers of drones when the president of Venezuela was the victim of what appeared to be an assassination attempt by drone. While he was giving a speech, two armed drones exploded nearby. There are many ways drones are utilised in military operations from gathering intelligence, to reconnaissance activities, and from acting as a decoy to lethal weapons used in combat.
The United States was the first to use armed drones after 9/11 specifically against suspected terrorists, but since then several other countries including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have also used armed drones in combat. There are many other countries that are known to have armed drones but haven’t yet used them in combat. Terrorist and rebel groups have also used them. The growth of armed drones worldwide certainly adds a level of complexity for national security.
Another use of drones that could be incredibly frightening or intriguing depending on your perspective is an AI-powered drone “swarm.” Just like social insects such as bees, ants or termites, a drone swarm is when multiple drones (sometimes hundreds) act in unison and communicate with one another to achieve a goal. Very powerful when joining together to fight for good, but in the wrong hands, a drone swarm could be devastating.
Helpful Uses of Drones
On the opposite end of the spectrum from assassination, drones are UAVs that help support humans in times of need. Here are a few examples of helpful drones:
Search and rescue
Drones are utilised during natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes or floods to find survivors as well as in other search-and-rescue missions in harsh conditions where every minute counts. Using a drone to understand the situation from a bird’s eye view and finding the location of those that need rescuing is helpful when creating a rescue plan and to identify who is in trouble. Researchers at the University of Zurich made a foldable drone designed to be used in disaster zones that can alter its shape to get through cracks and small spaces, which could help rescue missions be more efficient.
Drones can be beneficial as initial first responders to access a situation so officers in the command centre can dispatch more resources if necessary and even record video that can be used as evidence in court. In the testing of drones as first responders by the Chula Vista Police Department, one of the 100 largest cities in the United States, drones are deployed for a large number of scenarios and for the most part can get there before the officers do. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society also uses drones to catch poachers in the act on the open ocean. Illegal logging operations can also be tracked with drones.
Not only do drones help firefighters gather vital information that can help create a fire-fighting strategy when battling a blaze and investigate the cause of fires, but there's even a fire-fighting drone that can withstand extreme heat and reach great heights to fight fire. Drones with thermal cameras can help find trapped people in burning structures who need rescue. In forest fires, a drone with thermography can discover hot spots not visible to the naked eye that could erupt if no action is taken.
Deliver blood and medical supplies
In remote areas of civilization, such as parts of Rwanda and Ghana, drones have been used to deliver blood and medical supplies. Rwanda was the first country to use drones for blood delivery, and the country's success in using the technology has inspired others such as Tanzania to also use drones to deliver medical supplies. Globally, often due to the terrain and lack of infrastructure, more than 2 billion people lack access to medical supplies that drones could deliver to save lives.
From creating 3D maps of archaeological sites to preserve data for future generations to mapping forests to help with conservation, drones are able to capture a lot of data at once that can be critical for archaeologists and conservationists to do their work efficiently. They also offer a cost-effective solution for mapping projects of all kinds.
Drones make it much easier to keep tabs and collect data on vast amounts of agriculture space. From diseases to weeds, getting timely data and analysing it can help farms be more productive. This becomes more important as the urgency to get more food from fewer resources increases.
Would you hail a drone to get to your destination? That’s the hope of several companies actively working on passenger drones. Populous cities with traffic issues are the first to offer their cooperation to companies who are quite close to solving the engineering, mechanical, safety and regulatory challenges of the technology. In fact, Dubai is planning to have a commercial drone service up and running this year.
Sometimes drones are used purely for fun. From taking photos to cinematography, drones are changing the way of entertainment. And, thanks to a partnership between Lockheed Martin and The Drone Racing League, we may soon have self-driving drone races.
Bernard Marr is a world-renowned futurist, influencer and thought leader in the field of business and technology. He is the author of 18 best-selling books, writes a regular column for Forbes and advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations. He has 2 million social media followers and was ranked by LinkedIn as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK.