When people talk about legitimate uses for drones, Amazon’s PR stunt of promising drone delivery of your purchases often leads the discussion. It shouldn’t.
Instead, think of this: Where is it difficult, tedious, expensive, or dangerous to place a pair of human eyeballs? (Hint: Not your front porch.) These are the fields that could really benefit from drones:
1. Agriculture usually leads the list, possibly because former Wired editor Chris Anderson keeps talking about what a great market he’s found for “farm drones” in his new role as CEO of the drone manufacturer 3D Robotics. As he explained at a conference in Portland last October, from 300 or so feet up, a drone can detect variations in growth — say, a buried stream causing some grapevines to grow slightly faster — that would escape the scrutiny of a farmer walking through one row at a time.
At a meeting Saturday of the DC Area Drone User Group, Unmanned Sensing Systems International marketing director Kenneth Druce explained how he can use a drone to survey cropland in near-infrared light. That highlights which plants have a higher concentration of chlorophyll (think of NASA’s red-hued Landsat photos), which in turn tells the farmer which areas are getting too much fertilizer, which in turn can mean less excess fertilizer running off into the Chesapeake Bay, which in turn may eventually mean that a healthier bay leads to me paying less for crab cakes and oysters.
2. Civil engineering could use help from drones as well. Think of annual bridge inspections, as explained in this report from Missouri NPR affiliate KBIA. In this case, the usual “Will these flying robots kill us all?” safety worries are trumped by the current reality: Inspectors who rappel down bridges or climb up towers sometimes get hurt themselves.
3. Journalism also offers tantalizing prospects for drone-assisted reporting — by which I don’t mean making life easier for Hollywood paparazzi. Syracuse University journalism professor Dan Pacheco (note: a friend and long-ago colleague at The Washington Post) ticked off such possibilities as documenting the aftermath of tornadoes and other natural disasters (something Little Rock, Arkansas, station KATV did in April); providing an overhead view of such widespread environmental issues as pine-beetle infestation in his former state of Colorado; and gathering aerial footage of outdoor gatherings and travel destinations.
4. First responders have already benefited from extra sets of robotic eyes. At a quarry fire in Branford, Connecticut, this January, firefighters relied on a drone brought by volunteer firefighter and drone enthusiast Peter Sachs — yes, the guy in David Pogue’s video from last week — to see how close the fire had gotten to a cache of explosives. The answer: about 40 feet, or far enough away to send in firefighters to put out the blaze.
The New Haven Register’s story prominently noted Fire Chief Jack Ahern’s drone endorsement: “Believe me, the Fire Department will be buying one soon.”
But until commercial drone use isn’t largely illegal and public-safety use doesn’t require a tedious one-at-a-time waiver process, things aren’t that simple: You have to ask permission, and it may not come soon, or ever.