The Surprising Future Of Drones

Drones are no stranger to political controversy. Just Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military has been forced to relocate a large fleet of the crafts from a key counterterrorism base in Africa. Apparently, locals at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti were worried that the drones could collide with passenger planes.

But long before drones with killing capacity were used in Africa and the Middle East for "counterterrorism purposes," unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were being used in Bosnia and Kosovo to quietly monitor a battlefield without putting soldiers at risk. In the wake of 9/11, weapons were added to drones. The same month as the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric, was killed by the CIA in a drone missile attack on Yemeni tribal turf, ending a two-year manhunt — and beginning a new era of drone warfare.

Use of drones has since increased dramatically — by the end of 2012, President Obama had authorized six times as many drone strikes as President George W. Bush. Critics contend that only two percent of those killed have been confirmed as militant leaders, and that drone warfare does more to foster terrorism than it does to eliminate it.

Drone strikes do not appear to be going away anytime soon, with Obama saying in May that drones will continue to be used when they are the so-called only option.

What is new, however, is that the potential uses of drones is now expanding beyond military applications. Drones are now being used or developed for disaster management, environmental monitoring, civilian security and more. Take a look at the (non-military) future of the controversial technology:

Disaster Management

The Rim Fire that destroyed tens of thousands of acres inside Yosemite National Park was contained last month in large part thanks to drone technology.

Drones are being heralded as the new frontier in disaster management. The unmanned aircraft California firefighters have been using to help fight the Rim Fire had its inaugural flight last Tuesday.

"It sees what the fire is doing," Captain Will Martin of the California National Guard told The Daily Beast. "It’s instantaneous, and they can get an immediate idea where the fire is and where it is threatening."

The drone's imagery means firefighters have a more powerful view of the fire than ever before: the drone can, for example, zoom in a tree that has been hit by lightning, allowing them to see if the lightning strike is intense enough to start another fire.

"It is a huge benefit for not just saving the lives of residents being threatened but also the firefighters responding to the fires," Martin said. "Any time you can do this mission and not put lives at risk is a plus for us."

The use of drones to manage natural disasters is an international phenomenon. Konstantins Popkis, the chief technology officer for the UAV Factory, which produces a drone known as Penguin B, said his company's drones were recently deployed to survey areas affected by the earthquake that hit Italy in May.

Environmental Monitoring

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued certificates for two types of unmanned aircraft for civilian use: the Scan Eagle X200 and Aero Vironment’s PUMA. Both are used in environmental monitoring and measure around four and a half feet long, weighing less than 55 pounds with respective wing spans of ten and nine feet.

The PUMA is expected to be used to support emergency response crews for wildlife surveillance and oil spill-monitoring over the Beaufort Sea, north of Canada and Alaska. For its part, the Scan Eagle will be used by a major energy company off the Alaskan Coast to observe ice floes and migrating whales in Arctic oil exploration areas.

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has also acquired two drones for monitoring the Arctic, according to Popskis.

And that's not all. A team of scientists working in Indonesia has been using drones to study the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan species from up high, making it one of many conservation projects around the world to do so.

Civilian Security: "No different" from a security camera?

The U.S.'s use of non-military drones has been largely focused in disaster management and environmental observation, largely because the FAA won't be issuing commercial drone rules until 2015. However, many in the industry predict drones will change the standards of civilian security.

"[Drones] are no different from having a police helicopter over your head, or a security camera pointed at you," Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific, asserted.

Reports surfaced at the end of August that drones' surveillance potential isn't limited to civilians — the government flew an advanced stealth drone over Pakistan to gather intelligence that led to Osama bin Laden's 2011 assassination, according to the Washington Post.

Filming: Hollywood wants in

Drones have been used to photograph music festivals and shoot car commercials. In fact, if the Motion Picture Association of America gets its way, camera-equipped drones might soon be the method for shooting the overhead chase scenes of Hollywood's action thrillers.

Although the "drones" the MPAA is pushing the FAA to authorize will likely be the size of model planes and helicopters, studios think the technology will enable better long shots with fewer safety risks and lessened costs. Such drone use is currently legal in some foreign countries.

Law enforcement

The Seattle Police Department had big plans to use the Dragonflyer drone to cut down on crime, endorsing its thermal imaging technology to help with hostage situations, search and rescue operations, bomb threats, and the pursuit of armed criminals.

Residents, however, weren't buying it, with one group going as far as to call the drones "a gateway drug for big-time surveillance." The program was nixed in February as a result of the citizen outcry, but Seattle wasn't the only city with police looking into drone use. Police in Florida's Miami-Dade County and Houston have also acquired aerial drones.

Delivering medicine: Text-a-drone

Collaborators at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology were one of more than 100 researchers to receive Grand Challenges Explorations grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their development of unmanned aerial vehicles that healthcare workers can deploy via cell phone to quickly deliver vaccines to hard-to-reach areas. The researchers received $100,000 to conduct their early-stage research, so stay tuned.

Similarly in China, SF Express (one of the country's biggest delivery companies) is testing a drone it has built to deliver packages to remote areas, according to Chinese media reports.

The agriculture industry

Drone companies have their eye on agriculture and envision drones being used to spray crops, scan soil patterns, and track other features of America’s farms.

“A manned crop sprayer is flying 10 feet above his crops — how accurate is it? Any crop you spray that isn’t on your farm you have to pay for, and a remote-controlled ‘copter can be very precise,” Chris Mailey, vice president at the drone promotion organization AUVSI, said. “Spraying, watering — there’s a whole market for precision agriculture, and when you put that cost-benefit together, farmers will buy [drones].”

“There’s still a lot of money [in military drones], but it’s more predictable,” Mailey says. “This wild wild west we’ve had is consolidating.” Yeehaw.