Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are being used in hundreds of practical applications. From aerial photography to agriculture, drones have been adopted by a range of industries.
However, this is just the start, and advances in technology over the next five years will mean UAVs will become a common sight in the skies above most developed countries. Developments in artificial intelligence and smartphone technology will accelerate the use of drones, and it’s difficult to predict how widespread their use will become.
Just as driverless cars are likely to become common on roads in the next five years, unmanned passenger drones are also being tested. It may soon be possible to escape congestion on the ground and take to the air for short journeys, without the need for a pilot. New technology will mean industries where drones are already being used, such as construction, will find wider uses for them.
The following are some of the ways UAVs will enhance life in the future.
Traffic control and road safety
The Federal Highway Administration has tested the use of autonomous drones to monitor congestion on highways and bridges. UAVs can follow pre-programmed flight paths and feed back live data on the volume of traffic. If there’s an accident, a drone can be sent to the scene to monitor the build of traffic and help re-route vehicles to avoid the area. In the future, combining artificial intelligence with traffic monitoring drones means a system could run with little human intervention.
As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, India has serious problems with traffic and congestion. As well as making it difficult to travel, this also creates environmental problems. A pilot is underway using drones to monitor traffic on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. Local authorities have termed this road a ‘death trap’ due to the high volume of accidents, and it’s hoped drones will help to improve safety. Two UAVs were used initially to monitor traffic on both sides of the road. Fifteen drivers were fined in the first few weeks for cutting lanes, and drones have proved to be far more effective than CCTV monitoring from the ground.
UAVs are also being used on the highways of China to monitor traffic. Driving in the emergency lane to avoid traffic is a common offense, and drones are able to fly low and take a photograph of vehicles doing this. When CCTV cameras spot a vehicle illegally using the emergency lane, a drone is sent to the location. There was some negative reaction to this initially, but drivers now see the safety benefits. Technology enhanced policing using drones will become more common over the next decade.
In some remote parts of the world, UAVs already have practical uses in the field of medicine. They can carry packages containing vaccines, drugs and blood products to isolated areas. Speed is critical when it comes to the availability of medical aid, and drones are able to travel short distances very quickly. Experiments are underway to use UAVs to deliver defibrillators and hemostatic supplies to emergency scenes.
So called ‘ambulance drones’ are being piloted in a number of countries. The Netherlands was one of the first to see the potential for saving lives using UAV technology. As well as their speed advantage, drones can reach remote locations and areas where road conditions make it difficult for vehicles to access. One of the current limitations is that battery life restricts the range of current drones, but innovative solutions are emerging. In the future, aircraft will land themselves at charging points or pass their payload to another drone to complete the journey.
The Silicon Valley start-up Zipline teamed up with the Rwandan government in 2016 to test delivery of medical supplies to hospitals. Five hospitals were involved in a pilot scheme for a year, and this was expanded to cover forty more once it proved successful. Average delivery times in the past could be as much as four hours, and use of drones has reduced this to fifteen minutes. Health workers can place orders by a text message, and supplies travel at high speeds through the air to their medical facility. Flexible airspace laws in Rwanda have helped this operation, but other countries are likely to adapt current regulations in the future.
Disaster and emergency relief
Drones are already being used to search for survivors and help rescue teams in some parts of the world. They are particularly useful in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods and forest fires where sending rescue workers to the scene could put lives at risk. Drone swarms will take disaster relief from the air a stage further in the future. Swarms are able to communicate with each other and act without human involvement. Armed with thermal cameras, a drone swarm could identify the exact whereabouts of survivors and produce a detailed map of a disaster scene.
A pilot by The American Red Cross in Houston is underway to test how useful drones will be in their humanitarian relief programs. Hurricane Harvey presented the perfect opportunity to survey areas affected by a large scale natural disaster. Images and footage captured by UAVs operated for the American Red Cross allowed the organisation to direct relief efforts to where they were needed the most. At the same time, the drones helped to evaluate damage to property and infrastructure for insurance claims. In a combined effort with emergency workers and volunteers, drone technology can accelerate emergency aid.
Use of UAVs in disaster relief relies on state of the art technology. Battery life and quality of images are two key factors in how useful drones can be in these situations. By tethering a UAV to a generator on the ground, the pilot can keep his machine in the air for an extended period. The latest cameras designed for drones have 30X zoom lenses and can capture detailed images from as high as 400 feet above the ground. A drone can be launched within minutes of arrival at the scene of a disaster, and capture images from several miles of the take off point.
Crime prevention and anti-terrorism
Using UAVs for surveillance and monitoring can be controversial, but there’s no doubt they are of value in protecting citizens from crime and terrorism. Some experts predict drone technology will become a standard tool for law enforcement agencies in the future. UAVs can be used to see places and things that cameras on the ground cannot, so they are ideal for use in stakeouts and crowd surveillance . Being able to fly inside buildings gives drones an advantage over helicopters. In an active shooter situation, drones can provide valuable information about numbers involved, the direction a shooter is heading and possible escape routes for people in the firing line.
Potential for using drones in counter-terrorism operations has been on the agenda since 2013. CCTV footage from fixed positions can be useful in working out what happened after a terrorist attack, but UAVs have the potential to help prevent them happening. Drones of the future could use face recognition software and other technology to identify known terrorists and people carrying weapons. By alerting law enforcement teams on the ground, lives could be saved. In some situations, weaponized UAVs could destroy targets on the ground without the need for ground support.
The idea of using armed drones isn’t new, but it was the 9/11 tragedy that made it an acceptable option in military operations. President Obama scaled up the use of drone technology in counter-terrorism when he took office. A level of secrecy is required around use of UAVs in combat, but there are controls in place in the US to ensure laws of warfare are complied with.
One of the most exciting future uses of drones is streaming live rock concerts and sports events. Camera cranes are the current tool for getting viewers at home close to the action at events, but these are expensive and difficult to operate at some venues. UAVs make the crane-style shot accessible for all types of events.
A swarm of drones could give viewers on the other side of the world the ability to switch their viewing angle and experience an event as if they were there. Combined with augmented reality and 3D viewing technology UAVs open up a new world when it comes to experiencing live entertainment.
One of the main barriers to more widespread use of drones is regulations around use of airspace. These regulations are likely to adapt as UAV technology improves, and the skies will be open to hundreds of innovative new uses for drones.