For most of their history, drones have been primarily associated with warfare, but now that they’ve broken out of the military market, they’re actually being used for a very different task: saving lives. They’re already delivering blood to hospitals in Rwanda, mapping disaster areas, and helping in a lot of other ways. In the future it’s likely that we’ll find drones doing everything from putting out fires to pollinating our crops.
Drone package delivery is still in the experimental stages (Amazon and Domino’s have both tried it), but the healthcare sector is beating most commercial interests to the punch. The San Francisco drone company Zipline is currently using a drone system to deliver blood to hospitals in Rwanda, and other companies are doing the same with medical supplies across Africa and even in some more remote areas of the US.
Developing regions with poor infrastructure and frequent transport disruptions stand to benefit the most from medical delivery drones, but the rest of the world can also find uses for this technology. Some ongoing projects include delivering medical supplies in the wake of natural disasters, carrying defibrillators directly to the scene of an ongoing heart attack, transporting organs for emergency transplants, and many other tasks that currently require a lot of equipment, manpower, and time to do. Instantly-dispatched autonomous emergency surgery drones? Not yet, but maybe someday.
Search and rescue
Getting a stunning aerial shot of the beach is a perfectly valid use for a drone, but they can also make good lifeguards. The first drone beach rescue took place in Australia in January 2018, dropping floatation devices to struggling swimmers, and it turns out that UAVs can help out in a lot of different search and rescue situations.
Places like Mexico, Nepal, and Philippines have used drones to map areas after natural disasters, helping human rescuers navigate more easily, and there’s even a group of volunteers that show up and use their machines when they’re needed, doing everything from scouting to carrying cables. Drones have located survivors after natural disasters, helped find missing people, and with new capabilities like thermal imaging and even human transport, they could become a big part of future search and rescue operations.
Being chased down by a police drone isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, and the potential for police departments and government agencies to conduct highly intrusive drone surveillance will probably be a real issue in the future.
In other areas, though, drones are going to be a big help. They’re already being used by firefighters to survey buildings and gather thermal data to help them navigate (and in the future they could even put out the fires!), and if you think about it, bomb disposal robots may be some of the oldest drones out there. If they can be used to quickly respond to ongoing crime scenes, accidents, and other emergency situations, they could make emergency services a lot more efficient and will probably save some lives.
Of course, human lives aren’t the only thing at stake here: drones are also being used to save animals, rainforests, and even coral. Drones have found jobs monitoring invasive plant species, catching poachers, documenting animal behavior, and monitoring coral health, among other things. They may even help save the Great Barrier Reef by diving underwater and killing the starfish that are eating it.
Ultimately, if we end up not doing so well at conservation, drones may even end up taking over some jobs that animals used to do, like pollination. Yes, it was the plot of a Black Mirror episode, but real scientists are currently working on creating bee-like drones that can pollinate the world’s crops if other pollinating species die out.
Humans have figured out ways to outsource a lot of dangerous jobs to machines, but there are still plenty of hazardous occupations. We already have sewer-crawling robots, drones that inspect power lines, drones going into nuclear contamination zones like Fukushima, and even a prototype high-rise window-washing drone. And, of course, they’ve been a big asset to the military, which can be a fairly dangerous job. If you can think of any labor that has traditionally been dangerous, dull, or dirty, chances are someone is or will soon be thinking about how to get a drone to do it.
Welcome our new drone overlords?
On the one hand, drones are going to solve a lot of problems. Loading anything into a helicopter and flying it to its destination takes a lot of time, manpower, and money, while drones can be a one-person operation to prep, launch, and pilot with minimal risk and cost. At the same time, a sky buzzing with swarms of drones has a lot of safety and privacy issues, and the more sophisticated and accessible UAVs become, the higher the potential is for drones to become weaponized, used for criminal activity, or leveraged into a massive, mobile surveillance network.
A taser-equipped drone that can automatically track, pursue, and disable a person sounds a bit dystopian, but it’s a very real possibility. As with any new technology, we will have to balance the promise and the peril. Drones are making the transition from weapons to tools, and the clearer we can keep that distinction, the better.