10 New Ways to Use Drones

From fighting wildfires to coaching people on their tennis game, the aerial devices are becoming a tool of choice

fire drone
This drone is designed to start controlled burns of grassland. University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Welcome to the Age of the Drones.

It won’t officially begin until later this month when the long-awaited Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations on commercial drones go into effect. But now that rules were laid out earlier this summer, expect a lot of businesses to start taking a serious look at how they can incorporate small, unmanned aircraft into their operations.  

Ironically, the FAA didn’t do any favors for the companies that have probably done the most to shape the public’s imagination about how drones will fit into our daily lives. That would be Amazon, Google and Walmart, to name a few, who have conjured up the image of drones with packages landing in the front yard. For now, at least, that’s not happening because the new regulations require not only that a human “pilot” must be responsible for each drone, but also that that person must always have the drone in sight.

So much for delivery drones. But already we’re beginning to see how much potential the little flying machines have as a 21st century tool. Here are 10 new ways drones are being used by scientists, government agencies or foreign businesses.

Medicine from the sky

By next year, a California startup hopes to be using its fleet of drones to deliver blood, medicine and vaccine to some of the more remote places in America. The company, called Zipline, is already using its small robot planes to drop medical supplies to areas of Rwanda where there are no roads. The Zipline planes, known as Zips, weigh only 22 pounds and can carry packages up to three pounds, which they deliver by parachute. They can fly up to 75 miles on a single charge, which means the drones will be out of sight of the pilot. But Zipline is expected to get an exemption from the FAA so it can begin providing medicine to doctors in island communities off the coasts of Maryland and Washington state and in a remote area of Nevada.

Fighting fire with fire

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a drone that can set controlled fires in hard-to-reach locations. The device, about two feet wide, with six horizontal propellers, drops ping pong balls filled with a chemical mixture that ignites on the ground. This technique is already done with helicopters, but drones would be cheaper and a lot safer. Helicopters dropping the balls have to fly very low at slow speeds, increasing the risk of an accident.    

Tracking Zika mosquitoes

Later this year, Microsoft researchers, together with officials from Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, hope to start using drones with special vision technology to identify areas where disease-carrying mosquitoes are congregating. That would be phase two of a program called Project Premonition, which began last month with the setting of traps designed by Microsoft, traps so high-tech that they can identify different breeds of mosquitoes and notify health officials when disease-carrying types have flown into them. Eventually, Microsoft wants to use the drones to place the traps in remote areas. 

Aircraft checking aircraft

Airbus, the French plane manufacturer, says it has started using drones to inspect some of its commercial jets and look for scratches, dents and other damage. The company says a drone can do an inspection in 10 to 15 minutes instead of the two hours it usually takes a person. Airbus says it can also use the images taken by the drones to construct a 3D model of the plane that can be used to prevent damage to other planes.

Spreading broadband

Late in June, Facebook successfully tested a huge drone over Yuma, Arizona as the first step of its mission to provide broadband access to remote locations. Weighing about 880 pounds and with a wingspan comparable to a Boeing 737, the plane, called the Aquila, would ultimately be part of a network of aircraft flying on solar power at 60,000 to 90,000 feet. The planes would use lasers to deliver broadband signals to receivers on the ground, with each drone providing service 30 miles in any direction. 

Bringing back memories

A small Ohio company is using drones to bring a little happiness and pleasant memories to people near the end of their lives. Aerial Anthropology works with the families of hospice patients to identify a favorite place from their past. Then they send up a drone to shoot aerial video of that cherished spot. The video is streamed on YouTube and watched in real time by the patients in their beds.  

Tennis practice

Richard Branson’s Virgin Active has found a truly unique use for drones—teaching tennis players to hit a better overhead smash. The hovering miniature aircraft is able to drop tennis balls from various angles and heights, and even has a camera so a tennis coach can watch a student’s form as they swing.

Whale watching

Drones are also becoming the tool of choice for researchers studying the behavior of animals at sea. This summer, for instance, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) relied heavily on unmanned aircraft to track and record humpback whales around the Hawaiian Islands. In the past, large boats were used in such expeditions, but they could scare the whales and make it much harder to observe their natural behavior. Also, the use of drones reduces the risk of injuries to both the animals and the scientists. 

Spotting land mines

Every day more than 70 people are killed or injured by land mines. Researchers estimate that removing all the land mines around the world would take more than 1,000 years and cost more than $30 billion. But now British scientists have been able to fit drones with special imaging technology that allows them to spot abnormalities in plants caused by chemicals leaking from unexploded mines.

Painting murals

A team of computer scientists at McGill University in Montreal have been able to program a drone to make paintings. Specifically, the hand-sized aircraft use the artistic technique known as stippling, or creating a drawing from dots. Each is fitted with an arm holding a sponge that’s been soaked in ink. As it hovers near the surface being painted, it dabs the ink according to programming created by the scientists. Eventually, this technique could be used to paint outdoor murals.