Lot of discussion about drones of late – and no argument they have a way to go to prove their legitimacy in a slew of scenarios. But what should not be overlooked by policymakers and the public is that drones can serve a humanitarian purpose; in fact they already are, as you'll read below. – Liz Enbysk
We first wrote about leaders in Dubai contemplating the use of drones to improve the quality of life for residents more than three years ago. So perhaps it's not surprising that the tech-forward city recently hosted its third annual UAE Drones for Good competition – giving out prize money to teams that developed the best ideas for using drones to benefit humans.
There were 1,300 submissions this year – a 30% jump from a year ago – suggesting interest in drones continues to climb. One prize winner developed the "smart ring," a 3D-printed drone that can land on water and save a person from drowning. The other big winner, as reported by the Khaleej Times, is a drone that supports rescue teams in disaster settings.
So what else are drones doing to help people in need? A whole lot, it turns out. Below we've highlighted – in no particular order – seven real-life examples of drones coming to the aid of humans.
1. Preparing and protecting flood-prone communities
Dar es Salaam is Tanzania's largest city and some 70,000 residents of its live in informal settlements, according to Thomson Reuters Foundation News. Dar es Salaam is also highly vulnerable to severe flooding, especially in its densely populated slums. City leaders are working with the World Bank, Red Cross and others to plot roads, streams and flood plains using drones. Officials say that with accurate maps, communities can reduce flood risks and improve their response to disasters.
2. Assisting in search-and-rescue operations
Under a headline that reads "How drones are turning everyday citizens into superheroes," Business Insider tells how Texas software engineer and drone enthusiast Garrett Bryl became a drone volunteer with the Joshua Fire Department. Long story short, on a spring day heavy flooding hit the Fort Worth area, completely surrounding a mobile home by water with a couple trapped inside. Bryl used his drone to deliver a safety line to the mobile home; the other end was attached to a fire truck. With the home stabilized, a rescue worker was able to safely descend from a helicopter to help the couple.
As a side note, The Telegraph reports that the famed Swiss Society of Rescue Dogs will start using drones to augment efforts of its dogs and rescue teams on the ground. Thousands go missing every year in Switzerland, where mountainous terrain can make searches daunting.
3. Bridging the digital divide
With its Aquila drone, Facebook hopes to bring affordable Internet to the millions of people who don't have reliable access today. The goal is to launch a solar-powered fleet of high-altitude drones, each able to stay airborne for 90 days and beam broadband coverage to a 60-mile swath of land below. Last June Facebook did a test flight of one of the drones over the Arizona, which crashed on landing. In a recent interview with The Mercury News, one of the engineers on the Aquila project said the long-term goal is not only to prove the technology works but that it is also cost-effective.
AT&T, meanwhile, recently tested its new drone outside Atlanta. It calls the technology "flying COWs," according to the New York Post, with COW standing for "cell on wings." The company says one of its flying cell towers can provide coverage for 40 square miles. AT&T plans to use them to restore communications following natural disasters.
4. Helping hospice patients see their happy place
Tom Davis founded his Aerial Anthropology Patient Outreach Program to help people who may never leave a hospital bed again enjoy happy memories of places they've been. He works with a nonprofit that operates hospices services in the Cleveland area. A live feed from a drone connects with a big screen or laptop; the patient or family members can direct Davis where to fly. "Our patients are thrilled," Jennifer Stonebrook, director of access to care, told HopefulHeadlines.org. "Tom’s attitude is: if a patient wants to go to Hawaii, let’s get him there." Adds Davis: "With drones you always hear about the negative things, like the one that crashed on the White House grounds. I thought the technology was incredible and there must be a way to leverage it for good. This is a way for hospice patients to get out of their room and experience things, even if it is for a little bit."
5. Delivering food and supplies in disaster zones
The same engineer who developed the Aquila drone that Facebook purchased has come up with Pouncer, a humanitarian drone with a three-meter-wide hull that can transport vacuum-packed foods. "It will have a 50kg payload that should feed 100 people for one day," Nigel Gifford told Wired. He says GPS will guide it to within eight meters of its target. Gifford's company, Windhorse Aerospace, expects to be in production later this year. "If this existed now," he says, "it would be saving lives in Syria."
Treehugger notes that not all drone deliveries during natural disasters or conflict are simple, which is why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put out a call for a drone that would disappear when its mission was accomplished. San Francisco-based Otherlab responded with a one-way biodegradable drone that quickly degrades after completing its mission.
6. Transporting medical supplies to remote areas
In Malawi, a poor African nation with high rates of HIV, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health launched a feasibility study last year that used drones to deliver dried blood samples from remote village health clinics to a centralized hospital for analysis. The country’s dirt roads make travel difficult; even short distances can take hours, according to PBS. Turning to drones was an effort to speed up the testing and diagnosis of HIV in infants in Malawi, where UNICEF says 50% of children who are HIV-positive will die before they are two years old.
After the study determined that drones are a viable option for transport in humanitarian scenarios, UNICEF and the Malawi government announced the establishment of an air corridor for drone use – apparently the first in Africa and one of the first globally with a focus on humanitarian and development use. The corridor is expected to be fully operational in April, 2017. UNICEF says it will provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how drones can be used to help deliver services that will benefit communities.
“I think that when it comes to humanitarian applications of drones there is a very clear value proposition. It’s a use case that makes sense to everybody,” Arthur Holland Michel, co-director for Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, told PBS. But he added that hurdles remain on the technological and integration sides of things. UNICEF officials say the cost of drones is also an obstacle.
7. Giving first responders visual cues
Drones are being used to help first responders find survivors inside unstable buildings and helping firefighters get visuals on how to best attack a fire. It’s also easy to see how useful drones could be in the aftermath of earthquakes and other massive disasters where people are trapped indoors in unpredictable settings.
The video below from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January highlights the latest iteration of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight Drone Platform that features flight control and real-time machine learning aboard a drone in real-time. As recode points out, the advantage in machine learning is that drones can fly autonomously without knowing ahead of time what they might encounter – including indoors without GPS.