Drones can be distinguished from ground vehicles in a way that seems trivial but is the main cause of the euphoria surrounding them: they fly through the air by remote control, meaning they can potentially reach every point on Earth, and are only difficult to land. Drones provide hobby flyers with a lot of fun, military personnel use them to kill people with varying precision, and NGOs use them to save lives. The drone trend is also impacting the social sphere, whether it be in the co-ordination of aid operations or providing supplies for people in crisis regions.
Drones have the military to thank for their bad image. Headlines such as “Death in Yemen: US Drone Accidentally Kills 15 Wedding Guests” are not uncommon, and dominate the discourse in the media and amongst the public – even though only one percent of all drones worldwide are deployed in the military sector. Robotics expert Raffaele D'Andrea's comment in a TED talk that “how we use drones is not a technical but rather a societal question” is even more relevant today.
Meanwhile, there are many people engaged in deploying drones for good causes. Take Adam Klaptocz, for example, the founder of Krone Adventures. The organisation, founded in Switzerland in 2013, has already provided its drones for many different humanitarian projects, such as mapping land-mine areas in Bosnia-Herzigovina, estimating radioactivity levels in Fukushima, photographing the Namibian desert, monitoring population numbers in protected animal species, or measuring and documenting the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and co-ordinating relief efforts. In order to highlight the positive potential of drones and encourage new projects, the UAE Drones for Good Award has since 2014 rewarded the best ideas for the use of drones in a way that improves people's lives.
But what exactly are drones? Put simply, a drone is an unmanned flying object. In comparison to remote-controlled hobby aeroplanes or helicopters, a drone is capable of flying autonomously and acting intelligently, and can also automatically avoid obstacles. However, the extent of their autonomy depends on the algorithm used to program them. Essentially, the more autonomous the drone, the more complicated the algorithm, and the more expensive it is to purchase.
Drones can not only take high-resolution photos of landscapes and natural disaster sites, but also generate 3D imagery. Many aid organisations use such pictures to analyse damage and prioritise relief operations. For instance, the UN deploy drones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to monitor crisis areas in order to ascertain the current location of rebel groups, document ground fighting, or follow the flux of refugees. Because they are quiet and can often operate unnoticed (meaning they have less chance of being shot down than helicopters), drones are well suited to crisis regions and politically-contested areas.
Journalists use drones in places where their reporting is prohibited. For example, during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, a New Yorker flew a drone over an area that was cordoned off by police, enabling them to document the extent of the process. The photos taken by the “Occucopter” then travelled right around the word.
Drones can penetrate areas that are difficult to access within a short space of time and deliver important goods such as food or medication. In this way, the team from the Syria Airlift Project provide supplies to Syrian refugees around border between Turkey and Syria, which they are otherwise unable to access due to the tense military situation.
The startup Matternet has developed small courier drones in order to deliver medication to areas with low levels of infrastructural development. Matternet has developed a network of funnel-shaped loading stations in order to expand the range of their drones. The transport of two kilograms of cargo supposedly costs just 25 cents, which is much more affordable than building conventional infrastructure.
- Drones as Tools
Many developers are also working on ways of using drones as versatile tools. For example, in future, persons missing in the wake of natural disasters will be able to be detected using heat sensors. Drones can also help in the area of conservation: the company Bio Carbon Engineering is working on drones that can identify barren sections in forests and drop seeds there. They then observe the germinating seeds and provide them with additional nutrients if necessary. And Aquila, the drone belonging to Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg, will soon ensure that the highest possible number of people in the world gain access to the internet by delivering Wifi hotspots to remote regions. Google is working on a similar program supplemented by giant balloons with antennas.
Despite the euphoria surrounding drones, there are still questions that remain unresolved, especially around issues of security and data protection.
As the manufacturing costs continue to fall and more private individuals and aid organisations begin using drones, airspace is getting increasingly crowded. This is particularly a problem following disasters: private drones in the USA, for example, wanting to take spectacular photos of fires, have hindered fire fighting operations, with the fire brigade having to land their aircraft in order to avoid collisions.
As a result, the Californian government developed the “Know before you fly” campaign to educate the public on the consequences and rules regarding unmanned aircraft, as existing standards were not stringent. In Germany, too, regulations are not yet coordinated – every now and then a hobby plane crosses the path of a passenger airline's landing approach at an airport.
There was also a lack of co-ordination between the many small flying helpers after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Often, aid organisations and drone pilots are not in contact with one another – one group does not know how the technology works, while the other doesn't actually know what to do with the footage they have recorded. In response, the Humanitarian UAV Network founded 'UAViators', whose goal is to bring aid workers, policy-makers, and drone experts together so that drones can be more safely and responsibly deployed following disasters. This included the creation of a code of conduct that all participants have to agree to before being able to use the platform.
As is so often the case with advances in technology, the legal frameworks around drones are lagging behind the technological progress. Particularly in the areas of data protection and storage. What exactly can the footage obtained by drones be used for? Who does the data belong to and what can and can't be done with it? What happens when people are recognisable in the pictures – what about the right to one's own image? These questions are especially relevant for drone usage in urban contexts. The EU is currently in the process of putting together appropriate guidelines, while the UN already has policy in place for the use of drones, demanding that the intended purpose is of an ethical and legitimate nature and does not endanger either public security or individual privacy.
- 110% Growth
There are two types of drones: fixed-wing drones and rotary-wing drones. Fixed-wing drones look like small aeroplanes and are often used for mapping territories and for generating 3D models. Their advantage is that they are fast and can fly long distances.
Rotary-wing drones resemble small helicopters. How they are named depends on the number of rotors they have. For example, the quadrocopter has four rotor blades. Rotary-wing drones can take off and land vertically, which not only saves space but means they can also hover on the spot and take photos of a particular site or examine buildings in detail (fixed-wing drones would need to turn around and fly back).
According to a recent market research study, the market for the civilian use of drones in 2020 will amount to over a billion US dollars (in comparison, the 2014 market was worth 15 million US-dollars). That amounts to a growth rate of 110% within six years. Where has this sudden growth come from? It is primarily due to the the rapid decrease in production costs in the past few years. Moreover, drones can take over tasks that have long been expensive (such as aerial photography). In the long run, they will supersede the comparatively expensive satellite photography.
The advantages of drones over satellites are obvious: they fly lower than satellites and can also take pictures under cloud cover – at ten times the resolution. That is particularly important when taking photos after natural disasters such as hurricanes, where clouds can often linger for days after the initial event. Satellite pictures are also much more expensive and difficult to obtain, especially for small NGOs who want to use them for their work.
It is often unclear who owns photographic material and the uses to which it can be put. Images from a drone, on the other hand, clearly belong to the owner of the drone. Moreover, drones can be deployed within minutes of a catastrophe to deliver pictures, whereas satellites usually require between 48 and 72 hours – far too long for initial rescue operations. Drones can also take multiple pictures, while a satellite needs up to five days to photograph an area a second time. Imagery from drones can also be used to show changes in the situation virtually in real-time.
- Nobody can afford Satellites
Satellites cost roughly 300 million US-dollars to manufacture, and two million dollars every year to maintain, a cost which no humanitarian organisation on Earth can afford. Today, you only need 500 US-dollars to buy a drone that can fly for between two and three kilometres. Professional drones, which come with the software needed to create high-quality maps and 3D models, cost 20,000 US-dollars, but are still definitely cheaper than a satellite.
Drones fill the gap between satellites and technology on the ground. They can monitor, transport things, or be used as a tool.
New ideas for the use of drones in humanitarian and environmental contexts are being rapidly developed. Although this trend is positive, it must be accompanied by appropriate guidelines. The question of what happens to the data collected and what it may be used for remains to be clarified, particularly in relation to private individuals. Many promising ideas are being developed that require open-source access to footage gathered by drones following natural disasters. Attention must be paid to the environmental sustainability of such projects, as many drones still function on batteries, whereas solar cells would be more environmentally-friendly.