Flying Into the Future: How Drones Are Getting the Job Done During the Pandemic

From contactless medicine delivery to helping kids learn STEAM principles that will guide their future careers, drones are a sustainable tool in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Thomas Falk headshot
Thomas Falk
Expert Contributor
October 29, 2020
Updated: November 11, 2020
Thomas Falk headshot
Thomas Falk
Expert Contributor
October 29, 2020
Updated: November 11, 2020

Drones have been whirring into the civilian space at a breakneck pace.

Both recreational and industrial applications of drones have the exciting potential to make certain jobs easier, particularly those that would have previously required a costly helicopter trip — like aerial photography.

While these applications have been around the corner for several years, one new trend is the advantage gained by using drones in the middle of a contagious health pandemic. Because they can be operated remotely, drones can make certain trips obsolete and aid with social distancing — all while still nonetheless enabling functional collaboration. Best of all, as low-impact monitoring devices, drones are actively conserving energy and contributing to more sustainable practices.

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Fighting the Virus While Preparing for the Future

From archaeology to construction, potential drone applications run the gamut. One use case that skyrocketed during the pandemic is the airborne delivery of groceries. A number of pilots are currently run, such as Walmart in the United States and Tesco in Ireland. Drone delivery relieves people from the need to shop in-store, which is especially useful for protecting people who might be quarantining due to their status in high-risk groups. We’ve also seen successful medicine deliveries to remote locations.

Though COVID-19 accelerated development in this area, the delivery of essential items by drones will continue to evolve long after this all over. The technology is a practical way for those with impaired mobility to get food and other products, and I’m forecasting that drone-based deliveries will be the driving factor in scaling up online grocery retail. It is only through the use of drones, once mature, that unmanned delivery of groceries can be achieved at scale.

With grocery delivery, there are challenges that go beyond the drone’s software, management and steering capabilities. Some residents have objected, citing noise complaints. Others are worried about safety issues or feel that they are being spied on by unmanned aerial devices. For commercial delivery by drone to really take off, improvements both to the hardware and to informing the public will be necessary.

On the hardware front, the technology must be completely safe — regardless of weather, the weight of the load and potential obstacles in the airspace. Further, noise emissions from air flowing over the blades needs to be addressed. Commercial drones have taken major strides toward mitigating this issue, as their higher-quality aerodynamic blades help reduce the flow of air through the propellers and minimize vibration and sound.

These technological advancements aside, the widespread commercial application of drones such as for the delivery of groceries will only succeed if the public is informed and supportive. Residents need to feel confident that the technology is safe and silent — and that their privacy isn’t being compromised during delivery.

 

How Kids Are Using Drones to Unlock Career Paths

Although they’re stuck inside, kids are still hungry for real-world experiences that keep them engaged. There is no better time than the present to empower youngsters with the skills they need to comply with the rules of the sky by encouraging responsible play and learning with purpose.

There are a number of educational kits on the market that teach kids to build, code and configure their own drone. Most of them follow a STEAM approach to learning, which brings science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics into the real world. Such kits help build curiosity, dialogue and critical thinking, ultimately teaching children to take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem solving, embrace collaboration and work through the creative process. All of these skills set kids up to succeed in various areas of their future lives — and hopefully to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.

As drone laws evolve, however, it is increasingly important to know when it’s OK to capture that cool beach shot while on vacation or what the rules are when flying over crowds at that travel baseball tournament or local festival. The fear of being watched can deter people from public participation and regulations often vary by jurisdiction.

 

Affordable, Speedy and Convenient Surveying

Even uses that are not directly affected by the pandemic profit from drones’ inherent feature of being controlled remotely. They contribute to fewer trips having to be made, and enable collaborative work despite social distancing.

One of drone technology’s major benefits is the ability to survey huge swaths of land in very little time, which was previously only possible at a prohibitive cost. This feature is used in many different industries, from agriculture and construction to the protection of the environment.

City planners are using drones to evaluate potential building sites and monitor the use of urban spaces, while forestry and agricultural applications range from soil analyses to the detection of plant diseases to aerial spraying and seeding.

For these purposes, excellent flying capabilities and sufficient image quality alone are not enough; depending on the exact use case, drones will only fulfill their potential if the hardware is combined with other technologies such as GPS and artificial intelligence. While GPS is already being used to steer the devices and to match data with precise locations, there is still immense opportunity for artificial intelligence.

By leveraging AI in analyzing image and video data from the drones, users can detect anomalies such as leaks in water pipes or faulty power supplies. These kinds of AI-powered visual analytics can prevent shortages and outages and significantly reduce repair time. Images and videos can be live-streamed to multiple stakeholders’ devices, enabling smooth collaboration between individuals working from different places — a major asset in times of social distancing.

There’s also a lot of potential for automated image analysis in agricultural and environmental industries. By layering images taken at different times users can detect changes in soil quality, vegetation or large land features much earlier. Farmers can rely on these insights to take action on plant diseases, while environmentalists can map developments in natural habitats.

Innovators have long recognized the immense potential that drones offer, particularly when combined with additional technologies. But recent months have inspired and accelerated the development of even more use cases. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the delivery of groceries, medicine and items of daily use by drones is more than a matter of convenience — it can ensure the safety of individuals and entire societies.

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