Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a drone! Three ways drones are the new superheroes

By Sydney Radclyffe for Box News

Most of us have by now felt the unique annoyance caused by a drone, whether buzzing overhead in the park or getting in the way of our holiday flight plans

In the past year, drone ‘no-fly zones’ came into effect around all UK airports, and general public opinion of the technology seems to swing from distrust to ridicule. 

With all the bad press, it’s easy to forget the great many benefits drones have to offer – after all, we humans did create them to help us. 

Here are a few examples of the positive humanitarian and environmental efforts that drones are bringing to the world. 

Disaster response and relief aid

When disaster strikes—especially in hard-to-reach areas—it can be challenging to get a clear picture of the destruction and how best to carry out relief operations. Satellite imagery has been vital in understanding the aftermath of devastating natural disasters for more than 20 years. While indispensable, the technology’s weak points include high costs, data sharing restrictions, vulnerability to bad weather, and delay in relaying images. 

Drones, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), cut straight through these issues. They capture higher quality images faster and cheaper, fly below the cloud cover, and possibly most importantly, ordinary members of the public can own and operate them. 

This means individuals in communities hit by disaster, who are first to the scene and impacted on an immediate, personal level, can actually launch UAVs, assess a situation and pinpoint areas of need independently, without waiting for outside intervention. 

This grassroots approach is crucial for the resilience of communities in crisis. Groups like SkyEye and CartONG recognise this factor and have been training locals in the Philippines and Haiti to use UAVs in disaster response. 

 After Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, these groups launched an unprecedented number of aid UAVs. Awareness and development of the tech’s potential for disaster relief has since grown enormously, leading the UN to publish official guidelines on UAVs for humanitarian aid. 

Putting an end to poaching

All species of rhino are now threatened or endangered, and roughly three are killed every day for their horns. Illegal rhino poaching, concentrated in South Africa, has been hard to curb due to the difficulty of tracking poachers in the wild. Here, UAVs present a much-needed solution, as they’re able to operate quickly in remote areas and spot targets at night, which is when poachers usually strike.

A group at the University of Maryland created a sophisticated profile of poaching behaviour by studying the movements of animals, hunters and rangers. Guessing the whereabouts of a human poacher at any given time is impossible; the key is knowing where the animals are and the conditions leading up to an attack. 

First, algorithms predict the rhinos’ location on a particular night. Then UAVs with infrared cameras are launched to head off poachers as they approach. Since the deployment of anti-poaching UAVs in certain areas of South Africa in 2017, the practice of rhino poaching has almost disappeared. Pretty impressive stuff. 

Bridging the gap

Though often used in large-scale operations, drones sometimes have to work small, too. A joint project from Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems & Control and Gramazio Kohler Research successfully programmed quadcopters to build rope bridges strong enough to support a person’s weight. 

The team believes the technology would be useful for search and rescue operations and could one day save lives.

The quadcopters’ fiddly task involves tying a complicated series of knots to form a walkway between two points – the researchers sensibly used scaffolding, but you could easily picture an escape route across a ravine. 

At the moment, these drones have been lab-tested but would need cameras and more complex code to help someone in a real-world scenario. The bridge, able to span up to 7.4m, is the product of three years’ hard work and represents a huge leap forward in robotic aerial building techniques. 

Here at Box we’re really excited about the positive humanitarian and environmental impact drones could have. Our future will see multiple opportunities to use burgeoning technologies for good, and we applaud every early adopter, inventor, visionary and chancer that comes up with an ingenious solution to the problems we all face.