When we think of drones, we often first think of the military. Last month, Google decided to not renew a Pentagon contract for an artificial intelligence program that aims to categorize drone strike targets, under pressure from employees who found it unethical.
But a report released by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics in June, called “Drones in the Service of Society,” offers a closer look at the potential of drone use in humanitarian aid efforts. “When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict, or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue,” said co-author Noel Sharkey.
1. Delivering to hospitals
Matternet, a Menlo Park, California-based startup, raised $16 million for transporting medical supplies and lab samples between hospitals in California and North Carolina. The company started testing its drone delivery system in Zurich, Switzerland, to fly blood and pathology samples to labs in 2015. In May, the Federal Aviation Administration approved Matternet, among others, to partner with state, local or tribal governments to test unmanned aerial networks in the U.S. [VentureBeat]
2. Conserving the environment
Scientists are using drones to track how coral reefs are responding to climate change, where in the past they would have used underwater photography or satellite technology. Meanwhile, Seattle-based DroneSeed is planting seeds in forests, delivering water and spraying herbicides by drone. While in Africa, drones are authorities’ eyes in the sky to deter poachers attempting to traffic animals. [Geospacial World]
3. Finding landmines
Researchers at Binghamton University developed a way for drones to find small “butterfly” landmines that are usually hard to detect. The drones are equipped with infrared cameras that can identify the mines by their shape and temperature: the mines heat up much faster than surrounding rocks. “We believe our method holds great potential for eventual widespread use in post-conflict countries, as it increases detection accuracy and allows for rapid wide-area assessment without the need for an operator to come into contact, or even proximity of the minefield,” said Alex Nikulin, assistant professor of energy geophysics. [Phys.org]
4. Monitoring volcanoes to improve warning times
Following the eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii, volcanologists at the U.S. Geological Survey used drones to plot lava flows, formulate models of the changing landscapes and record gases. Volcanic activity is difficult to predict – “Every volcano has its own kind of personality,” says volcanologist Janine Krippner – but information from the drones can help, such as monitoring spikes in gas emitted from the volcano, a possible precursor to eruptions. [NOVA Next]
5. Detecting viruses in whales
Scientists are using drones to collect the mist emitted from the blowholes of humpback whales, instead of the more unwieldy method of following the whales by boat and trying to capture the mist with long poles. From the samples, the scientists are learning more about the whales’ health, viruses in their ecosystem and how the viruses — which are “related to human pathogens like ones that cause the common cold,” according to STAT news — are transmitted. [STAT]
Watch our NewsHour Shares video about how drones are revolutionizing the study of humpback whales.