It has been just a couple of years or so since the consumerization of drones went into full swing. But it feels like we have gone through a decade of development and consumer adoption.
The industry has grown so fast that even governments are having to rush to create accompanying regulations.
One telltale sign of this hyper growth is the number and variety of ways people and organizations are using drones. Camera drones have become especially popular in many industries from law enforcement to agriculture.
Here are some of the new ways we saw UAVs being used this year.
Hurricane Recovery Efforts
After hurricanes devastated parts of Florida and Houston, the race was on to help communities recover as quickly as possible.
Drones were a helpful part of these recovery efforts.
The FAA restricted flight over the devastated locations, as it does in disaster areas. This restriction extended to UAVs.
But they gave exemptions to at least 43 drone operators from organizations and experts who were involved in the cleanup and recovery operations in Houston.
Oil and gas companies were able to inspect their facilities for damage. Union Pacific also flew some drones to remotely survey rail infrastructure.
Eight volunteer drone pilots carried out humanitarian flights for the Red Cross and local government.
Even insurance companies used camera drones to predict and verify claims.
Drones have also been instrumental in showing the rest of the country the level of damaged caused by the storms. Thousands of people online have viewed drone videos of the floods like this one.
Delivering Medical Supplies
In the US, companies like Amazon and Google are planning to make deliveries via drones. But in Africa and Switzerland, drones are already making life-saving deliveries.
In Switzerland, a startup called Matternet has been testing a drone network that transports medical samples between hospitals and labs.
The startup uses a base station that automates everything from loading of packages to delivery. With the new network, the company hopes to help hospitals save time, cut costs and improve medical operations.
In Rwanda and Tanzania, a startup called Zipline is in a similar line of business. In a continent where infrastructure is sorely lacking, Zipline is using drones to deliver vaccines and blood to remote areas.
I can see drones one day becoming crucial for responding to emergencies. If passenger drone are successfully developed (see below), they could even function as ambulances. They would use the airspace to get patients to hospitals faster.
Investigating Potentially Dangerous Situations
Law enforcement officers encounter dangerous situations routinely in the course of their work. Such was the case in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada.
The public notified Police of a suspicious truck on a shoulder of a highway. It had been there for hours.
Concerned that there could be dangerous substances in the truck, the police requested two department camera drones to safely assess the situation. This eliminated the need for hazmat firefighters to put their lives and health at risk.
It eventually emerged that the driver had experienced a medical emergency and was in hospital.
In the United States, more and more police departments are adding drones to their arsenal of law enforcement tools.
They use them in different ways from safely checking out dangerous situations like the one above to tracking criminals. Many departments have already used drones before in search and rescue, especially at night and in dangerous weather conditions where helicopters are not very useful.
In Edgmond, UK, a farm run by researchers had its entire barley harvest picked autonomously by a team of autonomous machines. These included robotic tractors, harvesters and drones.
The drones were essential in surveying the progress of the vehicles below. They also helped the researchers monitor the quality of the harvest. Special grippers attached to the drones would cut off barley samples and deliver them to the research center on the farm.
This is not a big surprise considering that the agricultural industry has adopted drones faster than most other industries. They are helping in crop management, survey, sowing and spraying.
Studying a Volcanic Eruption
Volcanic eruptions are immensely dangerous. But scientists need to study them to adequately protect people and communities. It’s an undoubtedly dangerous study area for field researchers.
Luckily, drones are here to make the research easier, safer and more accurate. Recently, engineers and volcanologists teamed up to study Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala.
The constantly-active volcano spews smoke daily but its summit is too high for researchers to reach. So they sent drones equipped with sensors 10,000 feet up and 5 miles away right into the cloud of smoke.
The drones relayed a lot of useful information including a new finding that there are two vents not one.
In other regions of the world scientists are already using drones to monitor volcanoes. This will be especially useful in creating early warning systems.
Some companies including Uber and Airbus want to go beyond the palm sized camera drones we are used to. They want to create drones large enough to carry people. Drone taxis essentially.
A company called Passenger Drone has already developed what they say is a viable passenger drone. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 800lbs.
The military already has large drones capable of carrying heavy payloads. So I’m sure passenger drones are achievable. The challenge is to get people and governments to agree to them.
Synchronized Light Shows
I won’t say much about this one. The video says it all. It’s one of the several synchronized light shows created by Intel.