13 things drones are doing besides flying around your yard

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13 things drones are doing besides flying around your yard

Everyone who’s flown around a drone (or UAV, or multirotor, or what have you) knows that they’re a lot of fun. But they’re being used all over the world for more serious purposes — after all, an autonomous flying vehicle is a great place to start for all kinds of applications, from delivery to archaeology.

Here’s a sampling of what drones are getting up to across the globe.

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1. Racing at high speed

In a way, racing is perhaps the most logical and closest relative to the “just flying around” activity. The competitive instinct always kicks in, and once you get a couple of rules and a dedicated venue, all of a sudden you’re looking at a full-blown sport.

Drone racing, especially of the “first person” type where pilots view the course in a VR headset through the camera on the craft, is a unique and thrilling hobby and one open to all comers.

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2. Delivery (traditional)

The promise of drones dropping off payloads right in your lap, from ordinary packages to hot burritos, is an enticing one. But the truth is it’s not always practical.

Companies like Flirtey are working on figuring out the markets and use cases where drones outperform trucks, either in speed or fuel efficiency.

Maybe the solution is a truck that shoots drones out of itself?

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3. Delivery (hard mode)

One use case where drones make a lot of sense is small, time-sensitive packages that need to get to inaccessible areas. Medical supplies going to distant villages in rural areas are a great example of this.

Zipline is taking on that exact situation with a fixed-wing drone launched from a catapult. It’s been testing delivery of blood, antivenin, vaccines and other crucial supplies in Rwanda.

Matternet is a little more of a generalist, but it’s taking on special situations like blood-sample delivery in Switzerland.

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4. Internet access via high-powered laser

For internet access, the last mile — or the last thousand miles — can be the hardest one to cross. But high-tech, high-altitude UAVs like Facebook’s Aquila could float in endless (well, 90-day) holding patterns above unserved areas, acting as mid-air antennas.

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5. Security (next stop: ED-209)

Security is a difficult job, and the constant vigilance might make it more suited to autonomous machines than to humans.

What human, for example, would have the patience (and constitution) to walk the perimeter of a major facility every half hour, checking the fence for gaps and watching out for heat signatures? That’s what Airobotics’ security and inspection platform does.

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6. Drone capades

Drones operating as a swarm can produce spectacular light shows, as we’ve seen at Disneyland, the Super Bowl and countless other venues. It’s unique and beautiful, though also a little terrifying. After all, it’s the same tech on display here that will allow the drones to hunt you in formation later. No pretty lights then. Just fast, buzzing death.

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7. Selfies! Drelfies? Selflies?

Got to get those angles. If you want to look as cool as our own Fitz Tepper here — and that’s pretty dang cool — you’ll have to get a selfie drone like the Hover. It’s like a selfie stick, except way more embarrassing.

Just be careful what you decide to buy into. The Lily turned out to be basically a scam — it’ll be a while before cool autonomous selfie drones are a dime a dozen.

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8. Cinema, sports and TV

Drones allow directors and TV producers to get shots that previously would be impossible, or at least difficult, to pull off with a crane or wire system. Half the shots you see in Game of Thrones are drone shots (watch the behind the scenes videos), though when I first encountered them in 2009 at a music video shoot they were such a rarity that our drone guy flew down from Alaska. He now runs one of many companies dedicated to drone cinematography, FreeFly.

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9. Real estate and architecture

The days of setting up a nice camera across the street from a house you’re selling and getting a couple wide shots are over. Nowadays you get a drone to shoot 4K footage of the house or condo from every angle, giving you plenty of stills to highlight, and saving time and money. Interior photography not included.

Planning a new building or renovation? Architecture firms can motion-track a model right onto the footage and you can see how the new wing will look in full motion.

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10. Heavy industry and inspection

Inspections of gas and oil pipelines, civic infrastructure like bridges and power lines and a dozen other things are difficult jobs, and often dangerous ones. Drones equipped with special cameras and sensors can check for stress fractures, overheating, leaks, all that stuff — without a worker having to suspend themself from a beam or crawl on the underside of a bridge.

It’s not just in the air, either — we had a finalist on the Disrupt stage who’s bringing autonomous drone-based inspection under the waves, as well.

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11. Emergencies and search and rescue

If you need to quickly canvas an area affected by a flood or earthquake, there’s nothing like a drone. Quick to deploy and covered in your choice of cameras and sensors, they can find survivors, identify areas of concern and perform other critical scouting tasks.

Combine that with autonomy and computer vision, and you’ve got fire-and-forget drones that do that stuff on their own, freeing up valuable manpower.

Extra points if they live in a sweet Land Rover.

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12. SCIENCE!

Drones are hugely enabling for scientists who need an aerial perspective on their subjects. Here you see multispectral imaging of trees that gives ecologists incredible insights into the way a forest is growing or recovering. And archaeologists are quickly learning to appreciate the value of a drone in scouting a dig site, spotting hidden patterns in the landscape and planning expeditions.

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13. Protecting endangered species from poachers

Enormous wildlife reserves like Ol Pejeta in Kenya are havens for creatures like rhinos, but that same size and natural landscape makes them the haunt of poachers as well. Guards in SUVs can’t possibly monitor the thousands of square miles comprising these sanctuaries — but drones can.

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