Better Living Through Drones

For years, drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—have been making headlines as the United States and other countries use them for surveillance and swift, covert military strikes in the Middle East and beyond. But there are other drones. They’re the kind you don’t often hear about. The kind that has been helping civilians for years, doing the jobs considered too tedious or too dangerous—on land, at sea, and in the air. When these drones are sent to work, the goal is to lend a helping hand. Many of them can actually save lives. The applications for drones, including humanitarian ones, are endless. For a wildlife conservation project in Gabon, Africa, Duke University researchers worked on a low-cost drone that park rangers could use to monitor difficult-to-track elephants. “You can use drones to get a better count and find out if they are reproducing, if they are being nabbed by poachers,” says Michael Clamann, a senior research scientist at Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab.

Drones are also used to help with farming. “You can take high-resolution photographs to see if the crops are growing the way you expect them to, if there is some kind of parasite damage on them, if there are areas of concern,” Clamann says. The potential is for farmers to have larger, healthier crops that can be assessed quickly and efficiently from the air. Then there’s interest in drones from retailers like Amazon, which wants to build an army of UAVs designed to deliver goods to customers faster than FedEx or UPS.

Among tech-hungry financiers, drones are hard to resist. Business Insider reported that venture capitalists invested more than $450 million into UAV-related startups in 2015, four times as much as they invested in 2014. Revenue from drones was just over $8 billion, a figure BI Intelligence predicts will reach $12 billion by 2021.

Drones have also become the go-to vehicle in entertainment, journalism, and industrial work. The ability to go where humans can’t or shouldn’t provides an alternative option for almost anything. Official rules about operating commercial drones in the United States is a recent development. Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration still had a ban in place. But several Hollywood studios, which use drones in place of expensive helicopters to film scenes for movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and Skyfall, were granted FAA exemptions in late 2014.

Drones have become a widespread production solution. In 2014, Gifford Hooper and Phillip George won an Oscar for technical achievement in recognition of their work developing the remote-controlled Helicam miniature helicopter camera system. Hovercam, Hooper and George’s company that makes the Helicam, has filmed aerial scenes for hundreds of films, commercials, TV shows, and corporate productions.

For a multinational corporation like GE, using drones provides a safer way for inspectors to monitor large pieces of machinery. GE engineers have programmed drones to fly around obstacles such as wind turbines and flare stacks, and then detect corrosion or other damage using specialized cameras. The imagery could even be used to generate 3-D–printed models. GE is working on autonomous robotic fleets that are capable of handling dull, dirty, or dangerous jobs.

News organizations have also brought in drones for reporting purposes. In May 2016, The New York Times published a report on Hart Island, an isolated potter’s field near the Bronx where the city has buried more than a million bodies in the past 147 years. New York City officials denied the Times’ requests to witness new burials firsthand, so the paper used a drone to fly over and capture never-before-seen images of inmates from Rikers Island digging the graves that were intended for unclaimed bodies. In many cases, the island became the final destination for indigent or poor people who were failed by the system, the Times reported.

In such a short time since they’ve come to the fore, drones have had a profound effect on numerous industries. Here, we’ve highlighted some of the smart, connected drones you might not know about yet—and the projects they’re taking on that are enhancing and saving lives.

Robots to the Rescue

When confronting towering flames hot enough to melt metal, firefighters can have a hard time figuring out where they are or where they are going because topographical references have been incinerated. These first responders will rush into a burning building or toward a raging wildfire without having any idea of the size or scope of the blaze, or how many people may be trapped in it.

Drones could change that. Some UAVs are able to create wireless mesh networks, thanks to advanced communication processors built by companies such as NXP Semiconductors. These networks not only allow one person to control a whole swarm of drones, but they can also help first responders stay connected to central command and to each other—even if the channels become congested by too many people speaking at the same time or if the communication infrastructure is damaged.

"The more you know about how sharks occupy their space underwater, the more [scientists] can put that data in the hands of policy makers and conservationists," says Amy Kukulya, an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Communication processors needed to enhance radio effectiveness have mainly been developed for military purposes—and they’re costly, says John Dixon, vice president of marketing and communications at NXP Semiconductors. But they provide the ability to have vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications under extreme conditions within a certain area. That means first responders can maintain communications between the drones and a vehicle on the ground or fellow emergency aid workers, even if they are cut off from a satellite, Dixon says. He adds that his company is working on a new propeller-motor-control processor with enough torque to be able to lift a person.

In the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, two small UAVs were deployed in Mississippi to search condemned buildings for survivors. Having eyes in the sky can be the difference between life and death, according to Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and the Center for Emergency Informatics at Texas A&M University.

According to Murphy, scene assessment is critical to controlling a fire, rescuing victims, and recovery efforts after the fact—and that goes for any disaster. A UAV can help an incident commander and firefighters identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of a large fire or other immediate danger.

The more detailed understanding a first responder has of the scene, the better. “Are there people in distress? Is that road over there cut off? Can I get closer from that way?” says Murphy, listing possible concerns. The incident commander can make a quicker and more informed response, leading to less confusion and fewer people exposed to threats.

The Austin Fire Department’s Robotic Emergency Deployment (RED) Team in Texas has been collaborating with local and federal governments, the industry, and academic leaders like Murphy to explore the feasibility of using robotics, drones included, for real-time emergency-incident management on land, in the air, and in the water to enhance firefighter safety and emergency-response effectiveness.

The RED Team is practicing using the equipment for scenarios like wildfire mitigation and envisions the technology benefitting flood responses, hazardous material leaks, and other emergencies. The team is also working to establish policies that offer guidance on how, when, and in what situations to use them, and plans to develop dispatch protocols. Beyond situational awareness and search-and-rescue capabilities, one of the most important uses of drones is post-disaster reconnaissance, Murphy says. This information helps emergency managers understand the impact on buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, as well as provide insight as to which additional resources may need to be rebuilt.

This year, the National Centers for Environmental Information, which tracks and evaluates climate events, reported that the U.S. had withstood 196 weather- and climate-related disasters since 1980, in which overall damages reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of those events were in excess of $1.1 trillion.

"The idea down the road could be: a first responder presses a button, the drone takes off, does what it needs to do, and lands—all the while providing a stream of data and information to the people in control," says Patrick Ellis, manager of product development for connected vehicles at Ford.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that small unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, will be the most dynamic growth sector within aviation over the next few years. As many as 7 million small drones could be in the sky by 2020, according to estimates from the FAA, with 2.7 million of them being used for commercial purposes.

More Rescue Robots

Ambulance Drone The ambulance drone prototype, designed by Delft University of Technology graduate student Alec Momont, can quickly deliver a defibrillator to the scene of a person suffering a heart attack. Momont estimates that in scenarios where the chance of survival is currently 8%, his drone would increase that to 80%. The drone flies at speeds exceeding 60 mph and comes with a webcam so that a patient or Good Samaritan can communicate with a medical professional. In the future, Momont would like the ambulance drone to become a flying medical toolbox, capable of carrying an oxygen mask to a person trapped in a fire, or delivering an insulin injection to someone with diabetes.

Water Rescue The Los Angeles County Fire Department uses a fleet of remote-controlled buoys to patrol the Southern California coastline. Each buoy is essentially a robotic lifeguard called an Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, or Emily for short. Designed by Hydronalix of Sahuarita, Arizona, the 4-foot-long, 25-pound unmanned naval vehicle is used in search, rescue, and recovery operations. A tiny electric pump powers the device, which can reach speeds of 22 mph, punch through 30-foot waves, and withstand riptides. When a swimmer is in distress, Emily motors out to him and acts as a flotation device until human help arrives. Emily can be dropped from a helicopter or bridge to offer aid during a flood, hurricane, or other type of maritime-related disaster. It also comes with a video camera, lights for night rescues, and two-way communication capability.

Mine Sweeper  The United Nations estimates that there are as many as 110 million active mines buried beneath former war zones in 70 countries. Each year, the hidden ordnance kills between 15,000 and 20,000 people and maims many more.

The Mine Kafon Drone, created by Hassani Design in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, is a low-cost device used to detect and destroy land mines. Still in the prototype stage, the MKD has six rotors and interchangeable robotic extensions that carry a high-resolution camera, hold a metal detector, and grasp a detonator. The drone works in three stages: mapping an area, detecting mines, then destroying them. First the drone flies over a field with an aerial 3-D mapping system. Then, using the robotic metal-detecting arm, it hovers over the area and geotags the mines on a map. Each mine that it finds is marked for detonation. Finally, the gripper arm drops a small timed detonator on top of the detected mine. Once the MKD is safely out of range, the detonator sets off the mine. According to the company, the drone can clear a minefield up to 20 times faster—and up to 200 times cheaper—than traditional demining methods.

Eco-Drones Save the Earth

UAVs have made inroads into scientific communities as well, allowing researchers the use of a multitude of instruments on a single platform and giving deeper insight into the subjects they are studying. “We’ve actually been able to take most of the military-developed capability and put it in the hands of scientists now,” says Amy Kukulya, an oceans-vehicle-operation engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Most drones can be equipped with a digital camera, giving researchers overhead views of their study areas or closer looks at, say, orangutan habitats high in the tree canopies of Sumatra and Borneo. With the right software, these UAVs can produce high-resolution, geo-referenced photos and videos that can be fed into image-recognition software to improve the accuracy of population counts.

Conservationists also deploy drones in the water. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has been using autonomous underwater vehicles to collect data about the habits of aquatic animals for more than a decade and of great white sharks more recently. (You might have seen its work during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.)

Before Kukulya and her team figured out how to follow great whites with a drone, little was known about the predators’ habits. In 2012, Kukulya and her colleague, principal engineer Roger Stokey, tracked and filmed them near Cape Cod using an autonomous underwater vehicle called the Remus SharkCam. “The bigger picture was creating a stage for the world to see—and scientists and innovators—that these vehicles could be used to actually three-dimensionally track mega-fauna in the ocean,” she explains.

Scientists attached a transponder tag to each shark and the Remus SharkCam used the device to locate and follow autonomously at a safe distance to avoid affecting the shark’s behavior.

Underwater, the Remus SharkCam has the same torpedolike silhouette as a seal or yellowfin tuna. It’s slightly longer than 6 feet and weighs 100 pounds. The vehicle trails a tagged great white with precision, getting close enough to observe the shark in its environment without causing alarm, and gathering tons of scientific data on its habits in the process.

Before Remus, shark experts could only hypothesize how these animals ate, mated, and interacted with their environment based on what they observed from the surface, Kukulya points out. “For the first time, to look through this Remus SharkCam vehicle, we were actually able to have a chance at capturing some of these up-close-and-personal interactions,” she says. “The more you know about how sharks occupy their space underwater, the more [scientists] can put that data in the hands of policy makers and conservationists.”

On its first trip to Guadalupe Island in Mexico in 2013, the Remus SharkCam was attacked by several great whites, which might have been fatal for human researchers if they had been underwater. Even after being bumped and bitten, the Remus kept collecting information and captured the attacks with six cameras mounted around the vehicle. That footage revealed new details about the sharks’ hunting strategies.

Bots in the Green Beyond

Monitoring the Polar Ice Melt In the Arctic, drones are making significant contributions to the study of climate change. They can go to places that icebreakers and manned aircraft can’t, like underneath the ice.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are monitoring the base of the polar ice near Barrow, Alaska, with a modified Remus. According to Kukulya, the challenge with monitoring polar ice is that it requires robust long-range autonomous vehicles that can swim underneath the ice and find their way out.

Planting Trees BioCarbon Engineering, a company based in Oxford, U.K., designed an aerial drone prototype to quickly and efficiently plant trees. After creating a high-resolution 3-D map of a deforested area, the drone uses a tiny cannon to fire pods containing germinated seeds and nutrients at precise locations. The biodegradable pods break open when they hit the soil so that the seeds can take root. So far, the method has been tested only in the lab. The company’s goal is to use its technology to plant a billion trees per year.

Feed the Earth

Consider our planet’s hungry inhabitants. By 2050, the earth’s population is expected to increase to 9.1 billion, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Yet an estimated one in nine people currently suffer from chronic undernourishment. Those from emerging economies are adding to the strain by shifting to diets rich in sugar, animal fat, and protein. These nutrition transitions could require up to 100 times more resources to produce energy and protein from livestock rather than from grain, according to the Crawford Fund, an Australian agricultural development nonprofit.

So how will humanity feed itself in 2050? The FAO says humans will need to produce 70% more food than we do now. That would require a 5% increase in arable land equaling 70 million hectares, an additional 1 billion tons of cereals, 200 million tons of meat, and nearly 11% more freshwater—all while essential resources are expected to become scarcer. It seems that productivity on existing farmlands needs to improve in order to meet this ensuing demand.

Enter agricultural drones. They can take high-resolution photographs to identify parasitic crop damage, track crop inventory, and analyze soil. All of this is usually done by humans in the fields. Using an autonomous drone is faster and more accurate, Duke University’s Clamann says. Smart flying machines could mean the difference between a failed harvest and a bumper crop.

Drones can also help fight farm-borne diseases in cattle and other livestock in the hopes of eventually improving the world’s food supply—and save lives. For example, the Spanish drone developer Embention is collaborating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Ethiopian Ministry of Livestock, and the FAO to combat trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease commonly known as sleeping sickness that is spread by the tsetse fly. The illness seriously endangers the country’s food supply because it affects both humans and livestock. If left untreated, it can be fatal.

A project called Drones Against Tsetse is testing out a fully autonomous UAV system to release 100 sterilized male tsetse flies over each square kilometer of an infected area. Each drone wing has chambers containing temperature-controlled biodegradable boxes full of the insects. Once released, the flies mate with the indigenous fly population and, since they are sterile, the process doesn’t produce any offspring. The mates die without reproducing, ultimately reducing the overall tsetse fly population.

Normally, efforts to eradicate the tsetse fly in Ethiopia involve teams on airplanes that manually drop boxes of the insects into affected areas. However, the drones promise to be more cost effective as they don’t require a trained pilot.

Other Agricultural Drones

DroneDeploy Software from the San Francisco–based startup DroneDeploy makes it possible for anyone to operate a small drone and analyze the captured mapping images using a computer or smartphone. The company focuses on industries such as agriculture, construction, inspection, and insurance. With one click, users can launch almost any commercially available drone on an automated path to get same-day aerial maps and 3-D field models. The technology can help them see where their crops need attention, estimate yields, and store accurate data for comparison over time.

SenseFly’s eBee The tiny SenseFly eBee ag drone is designed to eliminate human error from crop scouting. The fixed-wing UAV allows farmers to inspect more acres faster, as well as capture near-infrared band data for vegetation evaluations. Plus, it’s almost entirely autonomous. Toss it into the air and it will fly, acquire images, and then land itself. After flying, it can quickly generate maps of crops, identify problem areas, customize agricultural application maps, and create drone-to-tractor work flows for crop treatments, all on the same day.

Responding to Disaster

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, sparking reactor meltdowns and radioactive material leaks. About 150,000 people had to be evacuated from the area over concerns about fallout. According to Forbes magazine, the clean-up will cost about $15 billion over the next 20 years, and refugee compensation will total more than $60 billion. And that’s only part of the impact. Switching the country to fossil-fuel-generated electricity from nuclear power has cost more than $200 billion, according to the Institute of Energy Economics. There’s also the cost of concentrated reconstruction associated with the earthquake and the tsunami: More than $250 billion for the first five years, according to the Japanese Reconstruction Agency.

The key to reducing such costs is speed. In 2015, Texas A&M’s Murphy gave a TEDWomen talk about using rescue robots to respond to disasters. “If you can reduce the initial response by one day, you can reduce the overall recovery by 1,000 days, or three years,” she told the audience. That could have a significant impact on the cost of damage from a natural or man-made disaster.

And drones can help with that. “Robots can make a disaster go away faster,” Murphy said in her talk.

The 2011 tsunami in Japan devastated 400 miles of coastline, twice that of Hurricane Katrina, Murphy pointed out. It wiped out bridges, pipelines, and ports. “If you don’t have a port, you don’t have a way to get in enough relief supplies to support a population,” Murphy told the TEDWomen audience. Using unmanned marine vehicles, she and her colleagues were able to reopen a busy fishing port in only four hours, despite experts saying it would take six months to get a team of divers to the site and two additional weeks to clear debris. A slow response would have hampered recovery even further.

Drones are useful for recovery efforts, Murphy noted. “[UAVs are] fantastic for structural engineers, being able to see damage from angles you can’t get from binoculars on the ground or a satellite image or anything flying at a higher angle.”

Disaster-relief-drone capabilities will only get more impressive. Shenzhen, China–based drone company DJI collaborated with the Ford Motor Company and the United Nations on the third annual DJI Developer Challenge in 2016. The challenge is for programmers to use DJI’s software development kit to build an application that would allow a drone to launch autonomously from a moving vehicle, search a particular area for disaster survivors, and then return to a designated base, according to Patrick Ellis, manager of product development for connected vehicles at Ford. “The idea down the road could be: a first responder presses a button, the drone takes off, does what it needs to do, and lands—all the while providing a stream of data and information to the people in control,” he says. While drones have been deployed in disaster areas for a few years now, they usually aren’t launched from a vehicle in motion. Rescue workers could use this system to stay on the move in a flood, fire, or earthquake.

Teams competing in the challenge must develop seamless drone-to-vehicle communication software to launch and land a UAV. They have access to vehicle data from Ford’s SYNC AppLink or the OpenXC platform. The winner receives $100,000. Ellis says the technology could have applications in farming, construction, and other outdoor industries.

Getting to Hard-to-Reach Spots

Since UAVs are built to handle difficult terrain or fly over obstructed roads, they can be used to distribute much needed medical supplies to topographically diverse and hard-to-reach areas. When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, it leveled homes and killed thousands of people. The Nepalese government scrambled to assess the damage and deliver relief to survivors. Foreign aid including medical equipment, plastic sheets, food, and drinking water streamed into the country. The Canadian relief team brought drones.

The humanitarian organization GlobalMedic of Toronto flew in a fleet of three UAVs to survey the region using sophisticated onboard cameras to spot survivors so that aid workers could get to them faster. The imagery also helped rescuers see which streets and buildings had been destroyed, assisting convoys with navigation.

NASA Global Hawk UAVs are being used to help scientists better predict where a hurricane will make landfall and how intense it will be when it does. Originally developed by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Air Force, these severe storm sentinels were acquired by the space agency for their high-altitude, long-range, and flight-time capabilities. While hurricanes can extend up to 55,000 feet in altitude, Global Hawks can fly above 60,000 feet, enabling scientists to collect storm data from overhead. The drones can fly for as long as 28 hours and have a range of 11,000 nautical miles. Each one is equipped with instruments for gathering data on cloud structure, temperature, wind speed, water vapor, and other factors related to tropical storms.