When the general public first learned about drones, the context was largely related to military applications and spy tactics, so the unmanned aircraft were cast with a bad rap. Years later, a number of creative technologists have found ways to use drones to help people, animals, and the environment. Drones are being used to protect endangered animals from poachers in Africa, to beam internet access to parts of the world never before served, and even as remote flying builders. Drones are helping humans work on projects - from the curious to the comical - that wouldn't have been possible without the small autonomous aircraft. Read on to learn about some of the most amazing ways drones are helping people and the planet.
While humans may never figure out a way to control the weather, there have been many attempts to influence it. Cloud seeding, the practice of sprinkling silver iodide into clouds to promote rainfall, has traditionally been done by small airplanes, but the job can be made a lot easier thanks to drones. In Nevada, one such experiment took place earlier this year, funded in part by the state government. Cloud-seeding drones were flown at altitudes up to 400 feet and equipped with silver iodide flares to shoot into the clouds. While it's unlikely the team was able to make it rain, using drones to deliver potentially rain-inducing measures could catch on in places like Nevada and California, where widespread droughts have been destroying agriculture for years.
In Africa, poachers have caused populations of many species to shrink and wildlife authorities have struggled to protect the animals. Elephants and rhinos are among the most threatened, and one group of conservationists in Zimbabwe is using drones to monitor poaching activities and add an extra layer of defense for the highly sought after animals. The drones monitor Hwange National Park, covering much larger swaths of land from the air than rangers could do on foot. In addition to providing broader coverage, drones can fly and record at night - a time when many poachers sneak into protected areas to poison wildlife water supplies.
A Japanese toy company is an unlikely source for a life-saving medical aid, but that's exactly what happened when RC helicopter maker Hirobo unveiled its HX-1 in 2013. The tiny, unmanned electric rescue helicopter was designed to withstand severe weather conditions while traveling to hard-to-reach locations. With a steep price tag starting around $80,000 each, the HX-1 could be outfitted to transport donor blood or organs, deliver medical supplies, and collect site data. Any of those tasks could save lives, and an ambulance drone can be a lot faster and more efficient than a human team.
Facebook promised an internet-beaming drone for a long time before the social media company's Aquila aircraft finally soared in the Arizona sky this past June. On its first test flight, the large solar-powered drone flew for a whopping 96 minutes before touching down safely. Aquila is unique because of its size: its wingspan rivals that of a Boeing 737. Despite its span, the Aquila drone soared with ease and the Facebook Connectivity Lab is improving the design now. In the future, internet-beaming equipment will be added so the drone can provide connectivity in off-grid areas.
Earlier this year world-renowned architecture firm Foster + Partners unveiled plans for a Droneport that will deliver emergency supplies to remote areas in East Africa. The project is essentially an airport for unmanned flying vehicles, and it can serve drones of various sizes while doubling as a community hub for everything from medical supplies to electronic equipment and spare parts. This isn't just a design, though. The first three buildings of the project are expected to be completed by 2020.
Drones are, essentially, flying robots. They can be programmed with specific navigation and flight patterns, and depending on their equipment, can perform any number of tasks - all with very little human interaction. In one of the most elaborate applications for the technology we've seen, a team of autonomous drones built a 24-foot-long rope bridge that is strong enough for humans to walk on. The project proves that flying robots may have a strong future career in a number of industries.