From delivering sushi to beaming the internet into remote areas, who is using drones, and why?
The term “drones” elicits a visceral response for many people. Tarnished by their military capabilities, drones are most commonly associated with the modern warfare tactics employed by the world’s most powerful countries.
But lumping all drones in together is unfair. Unmanned aircraft – or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), to give them their official title – have huge potential for application in civilian life.
Amazon’s well publicised desire to make use of drones as delivery vehicles is by no means the only function these airborne gizmos will play in the 21st century. Plenty of organisations are already using them to their advantage in a surprising variety of ways, and the number is set to boom in the next few years.
In Britain, the House of Lords has launched an enquiry into the civil use of drones to establish the many uses, risks, and benefits they pose. A key concern is that countries slow to clear the way for drones may put themselves at an economic disadvantage.
Meanwhile, concerns have been raised over drones’ safety and over the privacy implications of using them.
As the debate heats up, we take a look at some of the companies and organisations already using drones.
1. Facebook and Google
Not a company to do things by halves, Facebook is in negotiations to buy 11,000 drones to help bring internet access to remote parts of the world.
The high-altitude drones will remain airborne at 65,000 feet for five years at a time, initially beaming internet signal to isolated settlements in Africa.
Facebook then aims to use the drones to provide blanket internet coverage for the world, according to Business Insider.
Currently only 2.7 billion people, just over a third of Earth’s population, have internet access. Given that Facebook’s entire business model is based on the internet, and that it already has 1.28 billion active users, it’s not surprising the company is keen to expand its reach.
This year, Google also bought into similar technology with its purchase of Titan Aerospace, a US-based drone manufacturer. The primary reason for the purchase is understood to improve internet access across the world, too.
The UK’s largest airline has developed drones to inspect and repair or troubleshoot its 220-strong fleet of aeroplanes. Combined with augmented-reality technology, the drones, which have been built by Bristol Robotics Laboratory, are designed to cut the airline’s costs and plane repair times. They are also able to conduct more precise and thorough examinations of aircraft.
3. Kenyan government
Since 2012, Kenya has already lost more than 435 elephants and about 400 rhinos to poachers. As black market demand for ivory and rhino horn rockets, so to do the efforts of the poachers. A pilot project to use drones to monitor animals and poaching activity in one national park reduced poaching by an incredible 96%.
Drones are now being rolled out to all 50 of the country’s national parks and game reserves.
In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is using small drones to monitor breeding sites for rare wading birds and newly reintroduced species in hard-to-reach areas. Instead of putting on wellies and waders and trampling through reed beds to keep an eye on wetlands species, such as bitterns and marsh harriers, the RSPB has developed small drones with cameras and thermal imaging technology to allow easy data gathering.
5. Delivery companies
A plethora of delivery companies are attracting publicity through stunts incorporating the use of delivery drones.
First Amazon released its drone video, then across the water in the UK, Domino’s Pizza followed suit, and then Yo Sushi! developed an impressive flying tray for its flagship store in London. The tray whizzes through the air to bring sushi to seated customers and is controlled by a member of staff using an iPad. Though more effort than carrying a tray, and an unashamed publicity stunt, it looks pretty nifty. Here’s the video.
6. Aerial photography and the film industry
Humans instinctively love looking at things from above, and drones with cameras have made that a whole lot easier. For the film industry it is a major money saver, as drones cost nothing in comparison to hiring helicopters and pilots to film aerial scenes. Film makers can afford to experiment and use mobile aerial cameras in difficult and dangerous situations previously impossible to experiment in.
In June this year, it was reported that America’s Federal Aviation Administration is considering letting Hollywood production companies fly drones to film movies. But drones have already been used in films such as the Aviator, and in the US TV show Rushmore.
In addition, this year the Academy gave an award to Gifford Hooper and Phillip George “for the continuing development of the Helicam miniature helicopter camera system”.
Hovercam, the company behind the Helicam, rents out helicopters for $750 per hour, according to Motherboard, whereas a drone costs just $500 per day. Quite some saving.
How long will it be before drones are used instead of helicopters to film sporting events like Formula 1 or the Tour de France?
7. Sharper Shape, Helsinki
Did you know that Finland is Europe’s most densely wooded nation? Well, there are about 30 billion trees in Finland covering 70% of the land.
Shape, a Helsinki based start-up, is set to map them all using drones, before going on to other projects in the country including nuclear power-plant examinations.
Finland’s dense foliage means that corridors have to be cut through the trees to make way for power lines. When branches inevitably fall on lines during storms and high winds, helicopters are routinely used to find the affected sections. This costs a huge amount of money, but drones are now being deployed to do the work instead. Sharper Shape estimates that with further uptake the technology could reduce utility companies’ costs by up to 50%.
8. Criminals getting high with drones
The final group represented in this list are the crafty criminals of Shropshire. These naughty fellows are flying small drones fitted with heat-seeking cameras above houses with the aim of locating cannabis farms. Due to the high-energy hydroponic lamps needed to grow marijuana, the farms are easy to spot from the air.
The criminal gangs then rob the growers of the cannabis or extort them. Cannabis farmers make perfect targets since they don’t go to the police to report it. One drone-piloting criminal said to the Independent: “It is not like I’m using my drone to see if people have nice televisions. I am just after drugs to steal and sell – if you break the law then you enter me and my drone’s world.”