By Adam McCully
More and more it’s becoming evident that drones are slowly integrating themselves into everyday society. That sounds like something that SkyNet would put out in a press release, but what it really means is that drones are stepping out of the military and private sector and into the business world. As the technology behind drones improves, more uses are becoming evident. A lot of companies around the world are taking notice and looking for ways to incorporate drones into their business.
Amazon was one of the first companies to announce using drones, which makes a lot of sense. Amazon is a tech company at its core, and they deliver things… a lot of things… like holy-crap Amazon, cool it with the delivering. We get it. You’re the adult version of Santa Claus. It’s been awhile since Amazon’s initial announcement and still the sky is void of delivery drones, but Amazon is still moving forward at incredible speed with its drone delivery program despite running into some major regulatory issues with the FAA.
In Switzerland they’re ahead of the curve. Their postal system has been using drones to deliver mail on a trial basis. The model they’re using is a light weight autonomous drone developed by the Californian company, Matternet which also programs in the flight path. “The drone has an extremely light construction and is capable of transporting loads of up to one kilo (2.2 pounds) over more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) with a single battery charge,” said a representative of the Swiss Post Office. They’re hoping to have the drones become a major part of the postal service in the near future, but for now the drones are restricted to operating in a few small towns throughout the country.
Bizzby is another company in England that’s offering drone courier services. Not only will their drones deliver packages, but they pick them up as well. Unfortunately, this is another business model restricted by regulations. They’re only allowed to fly over non-populated areas, which is great if a cow wants to deliver something to a sheep.
Drones might not be cut out for manual labor, but they’re more than qualified for inspection. Already drones are being utilized to perform maintenance inspections in hard to reach or dangerous areas. UAVs scope out gas and oil pipelines and check for leaks in a fraction of the time – and with greater accuracy – than it would take a human. On the greener side of energy production, a Portuguese startup company called Pro-Drones has developed a method of performing maintenance inspections on wind turbines. They utilize highly tuned algorithms that allow the drones to fly at the precise height to monitor the turbines. Sensors on the drones report back to the technicians on the ground. Traditionally, this was a dangerous job performed by a dude with a rope. Drones not only make the inspection process safer, it’s up to 6x faster too. The whole inspection process takes a little under one hour right now, but Pro-Drones’ goal is to shave that time to thirty minutes before they head into full production.
If you’ve ever worked on a farm you know that the amount of work that goes along with that lifestyle is seemingly endless. Whether your planting, harvesting, or fixing everything that broke during the planting and harvesting season, your vacation time is severely limited. Researchers at Texas A&M are trying to fix that problem, or at least make it a little better. They’re developing drones that will fly over farmland and determine a number of factors that affect crop yield. Ultrasound devices on the drones will measure a plant’s height, IR thermometers will measure the temperature of the crops and the soil they’re planted in, hyperspectral sensors will be used to measure the water content of leaves, they’re even developing sensors that will measure the normalized difference vegetation index. What? You don’t know what the normalized difference vegetation index is? It’s just a fancy way of saying photosynthesis, which you think the scientists from Texas A&M would just say in the first place, but they’re scientists and scientists are fancy.
Perhaps the most exciting example of putting drones to work would be in the medical field. Now, don’t expect a drone to be performing open heart surgery within the next ten years (although don’t don’t expect it either) but for tasks like delivering medical samples? Well that fits into a drone’s wheelhouse just fine. A recent study at Johns Hopkins showed that drones could safely and effectively deliver a small payload of medical samples to a testing facility 40 minutes away.
Drones are also being used to detect diseases before they spread to human populations. An experiment known as Project Premonition is hoping to do just that. Developed by Microsoft, Project Premonition uses drones to deliver and recover small mosquito traps to areas where there is little to no human population. The recovered samples are tested for disease and if found positive, the mosquitos are required to pay a fine of up to $1,000 or spend 90 days in jail.
I made that last part up, but just because I think we need to have stricter laws enforced against the mosquito population.
You see those defibrillator kits almost everywhere you go, but if they’re anything like bathrooms, when you really need one they’ll be nowhere in sight. Luckily a group of smarty pants-know-it-alls at Holland’s TU Delft University have developed the ambulance drone. The idea behind this little guy is that when you call 911 (or whatever the number is in Holland) an emergency responder sends the ambulance drone to your location.
The ambulance drone has a camera, a microphone, and a speaker so that the emergency responder can talk to you through the drone and get a FPV of the situation. The drone comes attached with emergency defibrillators and the emergency responder talks you through the process of attaching and activating them. Future plans include outfitting the drone with oxygen masks, epinephrine, asthma inhalers, and insulin so that the proper drone can be sent out for a larger number of medical situations.
The sad fact about a lot of these technologies is that they’re not that new. Some of them have been around for years, but you don’t see a lot of drones scanning cornfields or delivering packages. Technological barriers aren’t the ones these drones have to break through, it’s the regulatory ones. Obviously with new tech comes new laws and honestly, the world will go along just fine without your shake weight being delivered a few days earlier, but the ambulance drone has the potential to save lives. Maybe drone regulations don’t have to be black and white. Maybe there can be shades of grey for something like the ambulance drone that might mean the difference between life and death for a person in need. Only time will tell.