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Be sure to check out part 1 of this 5-part series: “5 Ways Fusion Will Change the World,” and check back next week for part 3!


Like many action stars, drones – unmanned aerial vehicles if you prefer the five-dollar term – have been typecast. Until recently, they’ve been best-known for their use as weapons, and nine times out of ten, if you heard drones mentioned in the news, the story would be about people being blown up by them. Nobody glanced at a newspaper, saw the headline “President issues statement about drone policy,” and wondered if he’s talking about dusting crops or clearing old minefields.

And that’s a shame, because drones are useful for far more than destruction and are becoming more so with each passing year. The development of drone technology is already being felt in areas like farming, movie-making, rescue operations, science, journalism, and many others, and has the potential to change our lives in all sorts of ways besides ending them.

Most of the world’s technological advances find their first application in war and/or pornography, and so it was with drones. The first unmanned aerial vehicles – unless you count the Austrian Empire’s ill-fated attempt to bombard the rebellious city of Venice with bombs dropped from hot air balloons during the first Italian War of Independence all the way back in 1849 – were built in the First World War, though never actually used in battle. These were biplanes loaded with explosives and controlled from the ground via radio, first built in 1916 in an attempt by the British military to create “aerial torpedoes.” (Though the idea had already been envisioned the year before by Nikola Tesla, because of course Nikola Tesla would envision sometime like that.)

Combat drone

We’ve come a long way since then, in both the technology used to build drones and the vast variety of roles they’ve found. The typical civilian drone differs from its more bellicose older brothers like the MQ-1 Predator in more than just firepower. Civilian drones are usually smaller and lighter, and frequently – though by no means always – fly with rotors like a helicopter rather than an airplane. They’re usually powered by batteries rather than internal combustion engines, giving them less power and speed but making them cheaper and easier to operate in a civilian environment.

The growing usefulness of drones has been the result of advances in many areas, but especially in the sensors, computers, and software needed to make them reasonably autonomous. No matter how cheap, lightweight, or fuel-efficient your drone is, its usefulness is going to be limited if it’s essentially just an airplane with a radio receiver that can be piloted from the ground – you’d still need a skilled pilot to operate it. Anyone who’s ever played Microsoft Flight Simulator can tell you why entrusting that task to the general public is a terrible, terrible idea. Many commercially available drones can operate on their own based on preprogrammed instructions, and their capabilities will only increase with time.

As the technology continues to develop, prices continue to drop, and – let’s hope – government regulatory agencies adapt to the new technology and stop trying to strangle commercial UAVs in the cradle, drones will have the potential to change the way people live and work in all sorts of ways. Here are just a few.

1. Agriculture

Farming is not something most people associate with high technology, and yet there may be no more dramatic example just how radically technology has changed our lives. In the 19th century, over two thirds of the population of the United States were farmers. Today it’s less than one in 50 Americans – and yet the United States is a net exporter of food and its chief health issue is eating too much, not too little. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the biggest market for civilian drones so far has been in agriculture. The relative lack of regulatory interference with agricultural use of drones in the United States probably helps too.

Aircraft have long been a part of modern farming, used to sow seeds, spread pesticides and fertilizer, and execute strafing runs against Cary Grant over wide areas far faster than would be possible from the ground. Drones could make this even easier and cheaper to do, using smaller aircraft without the need for a human pilot. Japan, always at the forefront in the field of dooming humanity to eventual obsolescence, has already been using unmanned helicopters for this purpose for some time now. As drones grow more sophisticated, this will only get easier and cheaper to do.

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One of the challenges of farming is that information of potential interest to the farmer is spread across a wide area. Are there any signs of crop disease? Have weeds sprung up anywhere? Have any livestock wandered off? Has He Who Walks Behind The Rows returned, that he might claim his bloody due once more? Important things to know, and time-consuming to keep up with on a farm spreading across hundreds of acres. Even a thorough examination on foot might fail to reveal larger patterns that would become apparent with the ability to see a large area at once.

Cheap, easily accessible aerial reconnaissance could make a world of difference, giving farmers a bird’s eye view at lower cost and better resolution than manned aircraft or satellite images. A drone can survey a farm over and over again, creating a detailed picture of changes over time. Weed-infested areas identified this way could be precisely targeted by drones carrying pesticides, instead of dousing whole swathes of the field in pesticide at much greater cost to both the farmer and the local ecology.

Is it too soon to make some sort of wisecrack about targeted military drone assassinations? Probably.

2. Deliveries

Little rotocopter drones might seem like poor candidates for transporting goods. One of their big advantages, after all, is that their small size and light weight lets them get around with far less powerful engines than a manned vehicle, usually on electrical batteries. And flying through the air in a rotorcraft takes a lot more energy than moving along the ground – seems wasteful, doesn’t it?

And in many cases, it is – drones are not going to be making freight trains or trucks obsolete.

For delivering smaller packages quickly and efficiently, however, drones could be outstanding. A small drone could deliver a package a modest distance in a fraction of the time it would take a ground-based delivery vehicle, bypassing traffic and flying directly to the recipient’s address to drop off its cargo. Amazon and Google are both already developing services to do just that, with Amazon claiming that its “Amazon Prime Air” service will be able to deliver packages of up to five pounds to the customer’s door within half an hour of placing an order. So if you ever wake up in a cold sweat at the prospect of suddenly needing a copy of Sense and Sensibility and not being able to get one for several entire hours unless you actually leave the house and drive to a book store, your long nightmare may finally be over.

Drone

A bold claim like that warrants skepticism, of course. The technical challenge of making a drone that can consistently and accurately deliver packages without running afoul of the hazards an inhabited area poses to a small flying machine are considerable. There are also serious regulatory hurdles to overcome in the United States, where the FAA has not been friendly to the idea of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.

And even if Amazon can do it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can do it at a cost that makes it economically viable. But the mere fact that such big companies are actually taking the idea of drone package delivery seriously speaks volumes.

One area where drone delivery could be especially useful is medicine. Drones have already been used to deliver drugs to out-of-the-way rural facilities poorly served by conventional transport. Drones could also make many procedures faster and more efficient- for instance, a blood sample drawn at one facility could be sent immediately to another lab for testing.

Isn’t this wasteful, though? Pound for pound, carrying something in a drone requires more energy than ground transport. Those rotors don’t turn themselves.

Well, consider just how mind-blowingly wasteful driving your car to the store really is. To get something that may weigh only a few pounds to your home, the car’s engine must use enough energy to propel your purchase, your own body, and several thousand pounds of metal there and back. Having the local convenience store send you a pack of smokes and some Doritos on a tiny electric helicopter would be a model of energy efficiency and ecological friendliness by comparison.

And speaking of the munchies, there is a shadier side to drone transport: It would be a great boon to people smuggling illegal goods. A small flying drone could circumvent border checkpoints and Customs searches much more easily than a human, and with far less risk to the smuggler. Illegal drugs are an ideal cargo for drones, in a way, for the same reason legal drugs are: High value relative to their weight.. Transporting grain or lumber a few pounds at a time via tiny electric helicopter would be ludicrous. Cocaine, on the other hand…

3. War

I’ve been emphasizing peaceful uses for drones, but there’s no ignoring the shredded elephant corpse in the room: Drones are becoming increasingly important as weapons. As previously mentioned, drones have their origins in war, more specifically experiments with “aerial torpedoes” during the First World War. This was followed in the 1930s by the development of radio-controlled aircraft for use as practice targets during military exercises.

Unmanned aircraft saw actual battlefield use in 1944, when the United States made a few unsuccessful attempts to attack particularly sturdy German fortifications by crashing radio-controlled bombers into them. The first use of drones for reconnaissance came in the 1960s, with radio-controlled American drones equipped with cameras in the skies over China and Vietnam. Israel introduced drones with video cameras that could transmit surveillance data back to base in real time during the 1970s, and used this capability – along with other drones designed to serve as decoys or electronic warfare platforms – to devastating effect against Syrian forces during the Lebanon War in in 1982.

The first modern armed drone was actually fielded by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, when they equipped reconnaissance drones with rocket-propelled grenades. America’s first drone airstrike- and what might be considered the inauguration of modern drone warfare- was in Afghanistan in 2001. Today, drones are part of the military arsenal of dozens of nations and are used extensively in United States military operations for both reconnaissance and airstrikes.

Military Drone

Current military drones used for combat remain high above the battlefield, and are much larger and closer to conventional aircraft than most civilian drones. That may not remain the case, however. Some militaries are already using small drones – sometimes called “micro air vehicles” – at ground level, for tasks like disposing of IEDs. Armed ground-based robots already exist, and remote-controlled armed micro air vehicles like the US Army’s Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System are in development.

Militaries of the future might field whole swarms of such craft, perhaps launched from some sort of ground vehicle where they could refuel or recharge, fighting alongside or in place of human combatants. They probably wouldn’t be very resilient, but they wouldn’t really need to be; half their value would be in how disposable they are. (And it’s not as if a human body stands up to small arms fire all that well, either.) Armed drones – or just civilian drones with bombs strapped to them – would also be potentially useful to guerrilla forces or terrorists, providing a relatively cheap, disposable way to attack from a distance before disappearing.

This would require, at least for tasks more complex than “fly into this thing and explode,” considerable advances in autonomous navigation, target recognition, and decision-making. It might also, at least in the case of the United States military, require a change in philosophy. Currently, all armed drones, no matter how autonomous they may be otherwise, are I required to have a “man in the loop” for use of weapons – in other words, the decision to fire a weapon must always be made by a human. That’s perfectly feasible with a relatively small number of drones executing airstrikes from thousands of feet above the target. It becomes much less so if you have swarms of armed micro air vehicles (or ground-based robots) engaged at close range with a whole group of enemies who are shooting back. Throw in the possibility of jammed communications, and letting your drone combatants fire on their own looks more and more appealing.

The attraction of such a system is obvious: Fewer lives on your own side put at risk. Whether the appeal of waging war with fewer losses will outweigh the ominous prospect of autonomous military vehicles programmed to kill human beings on their own initiative could well be a seriously debated political question someday. I eagerly look forward to the first time someone mentions Skynet in a presidential debate.

4. Science

As we’ve already seen with agriculture, drones can be a great way to gather information. This can make them an invaluable tool for science and exploration.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have already been a particular boon to studying the atmosphere. Drones can efficiently gather information on weather conditions in remote areas, and can be sent into conditions where manned aircraft can’t go. (It’s frustratingly difficult to get insurance for a research institution that sends manned aircraft into hurricanes, for instance.) Drones also aren’t restricted by the mental and physical limitations of human pilots, who are prone to severe drops in performance when deprived of sleep for days on end. Some UAVs being developed for long-term atmospheric monitoring, equipped with solar panels to sustain their modest energy needs, are intended to stay aloft for years at a time!

Beyond things like hurricanes, drones are useful for anyone studying phenomena difficult or dangerous for humans to get close to, like weather in Antarctica or this volcanic eruption. Undersea drones – which are obviously not unmanned aerial vehicles, but I’m declaring them eligible for inclusion in an article about them anyway on the technicality that air and water are both “fluids” as the term is used in physics – are being used to explore the ocean. Drones are also handy in fields that benefit from frequent, low-altitude surveys of an area. They can be used by researchers and conservationists to track the movements and numbers of endangered animals, or observe in detail how a habitat changes over time.

Aerial drones can even be put to use in archeology. Detailed, close-in aerial images of an archaeological site allows archaeologists to get a better idea of the terrain of an ancient structure or city, while aerial infrared imagery helps them zero in on spots more likely to hide interesting artifacts. Drones would also be an invaluable way to trip the worryingly large number of still-functioning boulder and spike traps commonly found in ancient ruins, though as a matter of honor most archaeologists still insist on dealing with that themselves.

5. Saving Lives

Drones are a fearsomely effective means of taking lives, but they have tremendous potential to save them, too. The use of drones for disaster relief is still in its infancy, but has already made its mark in the aftermath of disasters like hurricanes in Texas, Haiti, and the Philippines, as well as the Fukushima earthquake and the nuclear disaster that followed.

In the aftermath of a disaster, survivors may be spread over a wide area. They could be injured, or starving, or threatened by rising flood waters or spreading fires. Time is limited, and so are the rescuer’s resources. No amount of courage or compassion will allow a rescuer to be in two places at once. (With the possible exception of Buddha, since one of the supernatural powers sometimes attributed to enlightened beings of infinite compassion in Buddhist sutras is, in fact, bilocation. But otherwise, no.)

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ V3 hovering over Weissfluhjoch (cropped)

For the cost of one manned search airplane, you could fill the sky with small observation drones to systematically search the disaster area, locate survivors, and assess the damage in a far shorter time. Once survivors are found, small cargo drones could deliver food, medicine, and other emergency supplies until they can be evacuated. They could do this in many locations at once, in locations a manned airplane or even a helicopter would not be able to reach. They could be sent into violent weather, radiation zones, or other hazardous conditions without risk to human life. Even once the immediate crisis has passed, drones would be useful for getting a thorough look at the damage, observing the progress of recovery efforts, or finding safe areas to relocate people displaced by the disaster.

On a less catastrophic scale, search and rescue operations for lost individuals or small groups could be conducted much more rapidly with the aid of drones. At least two companies, one in Chile and one in Iran, are currently working on a drone “lifeguard” that could fly out to a beach-goer in distress faster than anyone could swim and deliver a life preserver to keep the victim from drowning until human help arrives. The German nonprofit group Definetz is working on a drone called the Defikopter that delivers defibrillators to the sites of heart attacks. The possibilities are vast.


Be sure to check out part 1 of this 5-part series: “5 Ways Fusion Will Change the World,” and check back next week for part 3!


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