Drone use growing in surprising ways

Drone use growing in surprising ways
© Greg Nash

Companies are increasingly finding new uses for drones, which could ultimately influence how lawmakers shape policy around the emerging technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of crafting a broad plan to integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace, with a rule on small commercial drones expected to be finalized as early as this week.


But while federal regulators scramble to keep pace with technology, drones are being put to use in unexpected ways, now being deployed for everything from humanitarian purposes to educational research.

Such diversity of usage could help create greater public acceptance of unmanned aircrafts, with many people now seeing them primarily as military weapons, spying tools or toys.

Here are some of the new and innovative ways drones are being used around the world.


Blood delivery

The California startup Zipline International will begin deploying small, unmanned planes next month to deliver blood supplies to 20 hospitals and health centers in Rwanda, where access to medicine can be difficult due to challenging terrains and unpaved roads.

Healthcare professionals will be able to place an order by text message, after which a drone can be prepared and launched from a central location within minutes.

“With Zip’s unprecedented range, national-scale coverage is achievable from a single home base,” the company’s website says. “A fleet of Zips is able to provide for a population of millions. No roads, no problem.”

The Rwandan government is working in partnership with Zipline and has embraced more lenient drone regulations to help the delivery process run smoothly.

The company plans to ferry a wide range of medicines, vaccines and blood supplies in other countries later this year.

But even though the partnership in Rwanda could provide a good base model, medical delivery technology may not be widely adopted in other countries if stricter drone regulations are enacted.


Whale Research

Researchers from the nonprofit Ocean Alliance have used drones to collect whale data by flying the aircraft over the fluid that a whale sprays when it exhales after breaking the water surface.

In a mission known as “Snotbot,” researchers flew dozens of drones over whales in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The drones collected lung lining samples that let researchers analyze DNA, detect viruses and bacteria and measure hormone levels.

Typical studies require whales to be stung by a research dart or be surveyed by a large aircraft overhead. But the Snotbot mission enabled researchers to operate a drone from a boat located half a mile away, helping to both reduce stress on the whale while capturing larger data samples.

“The idea behind ‘Snotbot’ is to collect physical, biological data, and video and photographs from a whale without the whale knowing, and we needed a drone to collect that data,” said Iain Kerr, chief executive officer of Ocean Alliance. “We can observe intimate behavior without having a giant helicopter or an airplane, which is expensive and dangerous. This is going to give us a whole new perspective. We can help conserve this animal.”  


Emergency Response

One of the world’s largest drone manufacturers, DJI, is working with the European Emergency Number Association to develop a blueprint for integrating drones into emergency response efforts.

Over the next year, the partnership will explore how unmanned aircraft systems can assist emergency responders in a range of different environments and conditions. Some of the missions may include coordinating search-and-rescue operations, surveying chemical accidents and large car crashes, and crowdsourcing.

Teams of pilots in Europe will be selected to receive hands-on training and guidance about developing software to conduct emergency drone operations, with the goal of sharing insights and best practices with the international community after the program is complete.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerIntelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' House approves bill to secure internet-connected federal devices against cyber threats MORE (D-Va.) pushed to attach an amendment to the Senate’s long-term reauthorization of the FAA that would authorize public entities to use drones in response to disasters, catastrophes and other emergencies, but it was not included in the final package.

“We hope to demonstrate the power of aerial systems in first response missions,” said Romeo Durscher, DJI’s director of education, in a statement. “Drones are transforming the way first response and civil protection missions operate by not only helping commanders make faster, smarter and better informed decisions, but also by providing first responders with more detailed information from an aerial perspective.”