What drones are doing right now

New York
40° 42' 52.38" N, -74° 0' 25.632" E
21st Apr 2017
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Some imagine a future where AI and drones meet nearly all our daily needs for transport, goods and services. Along with this vision come the usual fears associated with emerging technology, so there’s much to overcome in terms of ethics, safety and acceptance. But, as the saying goes, there’s no stopping progress and drones are in use right now.

In 2016, the commercial, non-hobbyist US drone fleet was 42,000, according to the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), which predicts 57 percent growth over the next five years. Compare that to commercial airline numbers and it’s hard to imagine.

For example, at rush hour on a Friday, estimates show 16,000 flights in the air at once. This time-lapse video gives a bit of context to this reality.

Now, visualize nearly half a million drones sharing some of the airspace and it’s clear why we need governance. Current US regulations require every drone operator to register their aircrafts. For commercial flying, an exemption to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act is required and just over 5,500 have been granted to date. Here are a few examples of these drones in use.

“Dronalism”

The BBC debuted a flying camera in 2013. At that time journalist Richard Westcott wrote, “I have just become the first BBC reporter to use a ‘hexacopter’. I say ‘I’ but there is a fantastic team involved. All I did was stand there trying not to fluff my lines while the hexacopter – a multi-bladed lump of carbon and titanium, sounding like a swarm of bees, flew towards me before catapulting itself into the sky. The pictures speak for themselves. You cannot get shots like that with a helicopter, or a steadicam, or a boom, a jib, a dolley…”

More recently, Part 107 of FAA regulations released in 2016 better allows for the media’s use of drones.

Goods in the sky

Perhaps the most well-known consumer-facing drone program is Amazon Prime Air. Development centers are located in the US, UK, Austria and Israel, and testing is being conducted at multiple international locations.

A private trial in the UK is helping to improve the safety and reliability of its systems, according to Amazon, which is delivering packages under five pounds [in weight] within 30 minutes via drones.

Predicting nature’s fury

To better predict the intensity of hurricanes, drones are being sent close to the ocean’s surface, where no manned aircraft can go. An unmanned device named “Coyote” is dropped from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) hurricane hunter plane.

Through remote operation, scientists can obtain better measurements around wind, moisture and temperature during a hurricane, which aids in a more accurate forecast. In turn, lives and property can be saved.

When the storm hits

Predicting weather is one thing, but we still can’t control it and, for insurance companies, calculating the aftermath of natural disasters can include precarious locations. Farmers Insurance adjusters used to have to wear a rope, climb roofs and it would take hours to assess damage. Now, they are using drones to create a 3D rendering of the structure with details of any destruction.

Protecting the environment

Conservationdrones.org is a non-profit organization that seeks to share knowledge of building and using drones for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide.  Founders Lian Pin Koh, a conservation ecologist, and Serge Wich, a primate biologist first met in Zurich to discuss the challenges of wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia. They discovered how drones could be used in conservation efforts but realized most on the market were not affordable.

Now, they help other organization build drones and conceive use cases, while raising public awareness. One of their latest partner projects is helping find dolphins in the Amazon River.

Delivering health

Swiss Post, the Ticino EOC hospital group and drone manufacturer Matternet launched a joint innovation project in March, using delivery drones to transport laboratory samples between two EOC hospitals in Lugano – the Ospedale Italiano and the Ospedale Civico). The samples are currently transported by road.

Drones will make transport faster and more efficient and enhance the care to patients. Regular use of drones between the hospital is likely by 2018 when all strict requirements are expected to be met. Then, trained hospital staff will be able to load the drone with a safety box and launch with a smartphone app. The drone will fly autonomously along a predefined route and the box will be received by another staff member.

50 yardline

Lady Gaga’s star shines bright enough, but with the help of 300 Intel Shooting Star drones, that can each create 4 billion color combinations, she brought a new light to the Super Bowl halftime show this year.

To accomplish such a feat, at such a high-profile event in these high-security times, a waiver to fly the drones had to be obtained from the FAA. The footage of the drones also had to be filmed ahead of time.

Are you using drones either personally or professionally? Let us know how in the comments below