What Is A Drone? What Are Uses For Drones?
The term “drone” usually refers to any unpiloted aircraft. Sometimes referred to as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" (UAVs), these crafts can carry out an impressive range of tasks, ranging from military operations to package delivery. Drones can be as large as an aircraft or as small as the palm of your hand.
What is a Drone?
Outer space. Hurricane disaster zones. Antarctica. Your front door. One of these destinations is a little less extreme than the others, but that’s the point for drones. Drones, sometimes referred to as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAVs) are meant to carry out tasks that range from the mundane to the ultra-dangerous. These robot-like vehicles can be found assisting the rescue of avalanche victims in the Swiss Alps, at your front doorstep dropping off your groceries and almost everywhere in between.
Originally developed for the military and aerospace industries, drones have found their way into the mainstream because of the enhanced levels of safety and efficiency they bring. These robotic UAVs operate without a pilot on board and with different levels of autonomy. A drone’s autonomy level can range from remotely piloted (a human controls its movements) to advanced autonomy, which means that it relies on a system of sensors and LIDAR detectors to calculate its movement.
Different drones are capable of traveling varying heights and distances. Very close-range drones usually have the ability to travel up to three miles and are mostly used by hobbyists. Close-range UAVs have a range of around 30 miles. Short-range drones travel up to 90 miles and are used primarily for espionage and intelligence gathering. Mid-range UAVs have a 400-mile distance range and could be used for intelligence gathering, scientific studies and meteorological research. The longest-range drones are called “endurance” UAVs and have the ability to go beyond the 400-mile range and up to 3,000 feet in the air.
Because drones can be controlled remotely and can be flown at varying distances and heights, they make perfect candidates to take on some of the toughest jobs in the world. They can be found assisting in a search for survivors after a hurricane, giving law enforcement and military an eye-in-the-sky during terrorist situations and advancing scientific research in some of the most extreme climates on the planet. Drones have even made their way into our homes and serve as entertainment for hobbyists and a vital tool for photographers.
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Types of Drones
Single Rotor Helicopters
Single rotor helicopters look exactly like tiny helicopters and can be gas or electric powered. The single blade and ability to run on gas helps its stability and fly for longer distances. These UAVs are usually used to transport heavier objects, including LIDAR systems, that can be used to survey land, research storms and map erosion caused by global warming.
Multi-rotor drones are usually some of the smallest and lightest drones on the market. They have limited distance, speed and height, but make the perfect flying vehicle for enthusiasts and aerial photographers. These drones can usually spend 20-30 minutes in the air carrying a lightweight payload, such as a camera.
Fixed Wing Drones
Fixed wing drones look like normal airplanes, where the wings provide the lift instead of rotors- making them very efficient. These drones usually use fuel instead of electricity, allowing them to glide in the air for more than 16 hours. Since these drones are usually much larger, and because of their design, they need to take off and land on runways just as airplanes do. Fixed wing UAVs are used by the military to carry out strikes, by scientists to carry large amounts of equipment and even by nonprofits to deliver food and other goods to areas that are hard to reach.
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Probably the oldest, most well-known and controversial use of drones is in the military. The British and U.S. militaries started using very basic forms of drones in the early 1940’s to spy on the Axis powers. Today’s drones are much more advanced than the UAVs of yesteryear, equipped with thermal imaging, laser range finders and even tools to perform airstrikes. The most prominent military drone in use today is the MQ-9 Reaper. The aircraft measures 36 feet long, can fly 50,000 feet in the air undetected and is equipped with a combination of missiles and intelligence gathering tools.
Delivery drones are usually autonomous UAVs that are used to transport food, packages or goods to your front doorstep. These flying vehicles are known as “last mile” delivery drones because they are used to make deliveries from stores or warehouses close by. Retailers and grocery chains all over the country are turning to drones as more efficient delivery alternative, instead of relying on delivery drivers with inefficient trucks. These drones can carry an impressive 55 pounds of goods to your front door without you ever having to leave the house. Amazon, Walmart, Google, FedEx, UPS and many other big brands are all currently testing out different versions of delivery drones.
Sometimes it’s just not safe enough to send humans into a rescue situation due to the scope or severity of the disaster. That’s where drones come in. In the case of a capsized boat or drowning individual, officials can throw an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) into the water to assist in the rescue. If there’s an avalanche, drones are deployed to look for those caught in the snow. Aircraft maker, Kaman, has even developed a pilotless helicopter, called the K-MAX, designed to carry more than 6,000 pounds of cargo. The K-MAX has already been used in China and Australia to assist in fighting fires.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force have been secretly testing out unmanned aircraft geared towards space travel. The X-37B UAV is the Air Force’s ultra-secretive drone that looks like a miniature space shuttle. It has been quietly circling the Earth for the last two years, setting a record for longest flight from an unmanned aircraft (more than 719 days). Although vague, the Air Force has said “the primary objectives to the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” It seems that drones have been made a priority when it comes to the future of space exploration and innovation.
Wildlife and Historical Conservation
Drones are a cheaper and more efficient alternative to wildlife conservation. Tracking wildlife populations is nearly impossible with humans on the ground. Having an eye-in-the-sky allows wildlife conservationists to track roaming groups of animals, ranging from Orangutans in Borneo to Bison on the Great Plains, to get a better idea of the health of their species and ecosystems. Conservation drones also make perfect tools in the fight against poaching efforts in Asia and Africa.
Drones are also being used for reforestation efforts all over the world. These drones scour the forest floors of forests decimated by fires and drop seed vessels filled with seeds, fertilizers and nutrients that will help a tree rise from the ashes. There have been around 300 million acres of deforested land since the early 1990’s. What would take humans around 300 years to reforest can be more efficiently completed via seed-planting drone technology.
Finally, UAVs are becoming instrumental in historical conservation efforts. Drones are being used to map out 3D renderings of historical sites like Chernobyl, the ancient Greek sites of Ephesus, Turkey and Jewish cemeteries all over Europe. The vantage point gives historical preservationists the ability to find clues about culture and architecture, while using 3D imagery to recreate lost sites.
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How do you get medical supplies to people in hard to reach areas? What tool could you use to deliver organs for transplant patients? Drones are the answer to both of those questions. Right now, unmanned aerial vehicles are being used to deliver emergency medical supplies and cargo to off-the-grid communities in rural Alaska. Instead of relying on dog sleds, snowmobiles or ambulances that can’t handle snow, Alaskans are relying on drones to quickly receive life-saving medical supplies.
Drones are also being tapped to deliver donated organs to transplant patients. Just recently, history was made when a kidney was transported by a specially-made drone from one hospital in Maryland to the next in just under five minutes. This could cut down on the alarmingly slow rate at which donations usually arrive (if they arrive at all). Usually, organs are delivered via chartered or commercial flights. Delays and lapses in judgement cause dangerous delays of two hours or more for 4% of all organ deliveries. Drones can cut the time down tremendously, while offering a safer and secure method of organ transportation.
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Drones have been a boon for photographers, who use the UAVs to take expansive aerial photos. Ever wonder what it’s like to get a bird’s eye view of your favorite city, beach or building? There are drones made specifically for photography that provide a new way to photograph some of your favorite destinations from above.
Of all the technological developments to emerge in recent decades, one has an impact on a surprising amount of industries — drones.