Drones for good - beyond the 'war machine' perception

17 min read Dec 16th 2023

Table of contents

  1. Negative press
  2. Cause for optimism
  3. Positive use-cases for drones
  4. Conclusion

First, the negative press

Drones are often portrayed negatively in the media. This negativity generally falls into three areas; invasion of privacy, travel disruption (airport incursion or aircraft near-misses) and nefarious use.

Invasion of privacy

As drone technology continues to advance, concerns about privacy invasion have grown. The ability of drones to capture high-quality images and videos from the air, even at great distance, raises anxieties about individuals' personal lives being observed without their consent.

A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans are concerned about drones being used to collect information about them without their knowledge or permission. This concern is particularly acute among younger generations, with 72% of adults under the age of 50 expressing such concerns.

Travel disruption

Reporting, understandably, focuses on events like the Gatwick disruption and investigations by the AAIB into 'near-miss' events reported by airline pilots. The media has little to go on because there is a lack of factual evidence about these types of incidents. Investigative bodies tend to err on the side of explaining incidents as being a drone because that seems like an easy answer - object less than a metre square at 3,000ft spotted by the pilot in an Airbus 320 travelling at 380kph - definitely a drone. Sadly, this apparently lazy approach damages the public's perception of drones.

Nefarious use

Using drones to deliver contraband to prisons is becoming increasingly common. And why wouldn't it be? Drones are affordable and accessible, very difficult to detect and intercept and they can be easily controlled from a distance. They can carry a surprising amount of weight too - far more than a visitor might be able to conceal about their person. What a great news story.

Drone use in military contexts also garners a lot of press attention. The drones used are often consumer drones, which any of us can buy, which are delivering an extremely effective battlefield advantage at low cost and low risk to the operator. This novel malevolent use-case has found its way into the public's consciousness during the Ukrain conflict. And whilst the news stories are arguably 'positive' in the sense they are reporting enemy kills, they do cast a shadow over the legitimate and positive uses of drones.

Cause for optimism

Despite all the perceived negativity, there is cause for optimism. Google's AI "Bard" reports that...

"On balance, over the last 3 years, there has been a slight increase in positive news stories about drones in the media. This is likely due to the growing number of positive applications for drones, such as their use in search and rescue operations, delivering critical supplies to remote areas, and providing aerial photography and videography.

"Overall, the media coverage of drones is becoming more balanced, with a greater focus on the positive applications of drones and the efforts being made to address safety and privacy concerns.

Positive use-cases for drones

Drones are predominantly used for benevolent, beneficial and practical purposes. Let's explore how drones are contributing positively across various sectors in the hope that it might encourage media outlets to consider moving the drone-reporting dial towards the positive end of the spectrum.

Photography and video

Drones attract recreational users for their ability to take captivating pictures and videos from the air. Photographers love the ability to capture amazing shapes and colours only visible from an aerial perspective.

Drones are widely used in TV and Film. It now incredibly rare to see any drama or documentary which doesn't include some element of drone cinematography. Drones bring a whole new perspective that was previously only available to big-budget productions that could afford to use helicopters. And droneds can deliver a wider variety of shots than a helicopter too due to their small size, manoeuvrability and (usually) low risk. Some of the very best examples of exemplary drone footage come from BBC's Blue Planet series, bringing awe and wonder directly to your living room.

Surveying and inspection

Drones have steadily gained traction within the commercial world and are now firmly embedded into the workflow of many infrastructure, construction, and inspection companies. The likes of Network Rail, National Grid, and Ordnance Survey, all utilise drone technology today.

Drones offer several key benefits over traditional methods, including:

  • Increased safety: Drones can access dangerous or difficult-to-reach areas that would be hazardous or impractical for humans to inspect. This includes areas with high altitudes, hazardous materials, or hazardous conditions. Drones can also be used to inspect infrastructure in remote locations, or in areas that are difficult to access due to traffic or other obstructions.

  • Improved efficiency: Drones can survey and inspect large areas in a matter of hours, compared to days or weeks for traditional methods. This is due to their ability to cover a wide area quickly and efficiently. Drones can also be programmed to autonomously follow specific flight paths, which further increases their efficiency.

  • Enhanced accuracy: Drones can collect high-resolution data that can be used to create accurate 3D models of the area being surveyed or inspected. This data can be used to identify problems, assess damage, and plan maintenance or repairs.

  • **Reduced costs: Drones can often be used to collect data much more cost-effectively than traditional methods because they can collect data faster and more efficiently. Additionally, drones can often be used to collect data that would otherwise require specialized equipment or expertise.

  • Increased productivity: Drones can be used to collect data that can be used to automate tasks, such as pipeline inspections or building surveys. This can free up human workers to focus on more complex tasks, or to work on multiple projects simultaneously.

Agriculture

Agricultural drones are the latest and greatest machinery to hit the farmer's yard. Although there are limitations to what a drone can lift, companies like Autospray Systems are helping to develop the agricultural drone industry in the UK.

Drones are set to revolutionise the agricultural industry, offering farmers a multitude of benefits to enhance crop yields, optimize resource management, and streamline operations. Here are some key advantages of using drones in agriculture:

  • Enhanced field monitoring and crop health assessment: Drones can capture high-resolution, multi-spectoral aerial image and video data of fields, enabling farmers to monitor crop health, identify potential problems like pests, diseases, or nutrient deficiencies, and assess crop maturity levels.

  • Precise crop spraying and fertilization: Drones equipped with precision spraying systems can deliver fertilizers and pesticides (although not in the UK just yet!) directly to specific areas of the field, minimizing the application of chemicals and reducing the environmental impact.

  • Improved irrigation efficiency: Drones can map irrigation systems and identify areas with uneven water distribution, enabling farmers to optimize irrigation schedules and reduce water waste.

  • Automated field operations: Drones can be programmed to perform routine tasks such as field mapping, data collection, and even spraying or fertilization, reducing the need for manual labour. This automation frees up farmers' time to focus on higher-value activities and manage their operations more efficiently.

  • Livestock monitoring: Drones can be used to count livestock, identify individual animals, and track their movements in real-time. This real-time information can be used to locate specific animals, reunite separated groups, and monitor animal health over time. By streamlining herd management practices, ranchers can reduce the workload and improve herd productivity..

  • Cost-effectiveness and RoI: Drone technology is rapidly becoming more affordable, making it a viable investment for many farmers. The cost savings from reduced labour, improved resource management, and increased yields can quickly offset the initial investment in drone equipment and software.

Cleaning

Specialist cleaning drones are proving to be another highly useful application for drone technology. The main benefits are in their efficiency and inherent safety, doing away with the need for risky rope access. Cleaning drones are usually tethered to a portable water system on the ground and gradually make their way around a building, spraying a jet of water mixed with cleaning solution.

Here are some of the main advantages of using drones for cleaning activities:

  • Enhanced efficiency and reach: Drones can cover large areas quickly and efficiently, reaching difficult-to-access locations that would be challenging or unsafe for humans to clean. This includes rooftops, high walls, and expansive areas like solar farms or industrial sites.

  • Automated and repeatable cleaning: Drones can be programmed to follow pre-determined flight paths and perform cleaning tasks with precision and consistency, eliminating the need for manual labour and reducing the risk of human error.

  • Precise application of cleaning agents: Drones can be equipped with specialized nozzles or sprayers to deliver cleaning agents directly to the area that needs to be cleaned, minimizing overspray and waste. This precise application can enhance cleaning effectiveness and reduce environmental impact.

  • Real-time monitoring and data collection: Drones equipped with sensors and cameras can gather real-time data on cleaning progress, such as surface coverage, cleaning agent usage, and areas that require additional attention. This data can be used to optimize cleaning schedules and ensure thoroughness.

  • Remote monitoring and access to hazardous areas: Drones can be remotely operated, allowing for safe cleaning of areas that may be hazardous or difficult to access for humans, such as active industrial sites or chemical spills. This remote operation minimizes the risk of accidents and exposure to hazardous materials.

  • Cost-effectiveness and reduced labour costs: The use of drones can significantly reduce labour costs associated with traditional cleaning methods, particularly in large-scale or hazardous environments. By automating cleaning tasks and minimizing the need for manual labour, businesses can save money and improve operational efficiency.

  • Reduced environmental impact: Drones can help to reduce environmental impact by minimizing the use of cleaning chemicals and optimizing their application. By using precise application methods and minimizing overspray, drones can contribute to sustainable cleaning practices.

Climate, environment, and conservation

Drones are used across the UK and beyond by organisations interested in environmental monitoring and management. For example, in 2023 the British Antartic Survey launched a fixed wing UAV as part of its plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040. This UAV is capable of carrying 100kg of cargo or sensors up to 1000km.

Wildlife monitoring and assessment

Drones can efficiently scan vast areas, providing comprehensive coverage of landscapes and habitats, enabling the monitoring of wildlife populations, migration patterns, and habitat usage. This remote monitoring is particularly valuable in remote or inaccessible areas, minimizing disturbance to wildlife. Equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging sensors they can identify and track individual animals, providing insights into their behavior, health, and interactions. This detailed data can be used to assess population trends, identify potential threats, and design targeted conservation interventions.

Forest management and conservation

Drones can rapidly survey vast forested areas, providing accurate inventory data on timber volumes, tree health, and forest structure. This data can be used to optimize forestry operations, ensure sustainable management practices, and detect potential threats to forest health. They can effectively monitor forests for early signs of wildfires, including smoke plumes, heat signatures, and changes in vegetation patterns. This early detection can enable rapid response and firefighting efforts, minimizing forest destruction and damage.

Environmental impact monitoring

Drones can provide aerial imagery and data to assess the impact of human activities on ecosystems, including deforestation, pollution, and habitat loss. This data can be used to monitor environmental compliance, guide conservation efforts, and inform policy decisions. They can monitor pipelines, oil and gas wells, and other infrastructure in remote or hazardous locations, providing real-time data on leaks, spills, and infrastructure integrity. This proactive monitoring can prevent environmental damage and ensure safety.

Drone delivery

Behemoth retail company Amazon has been furiously working away to make the dream of drone delivery a reality. Smaller start-ups are already proving that drone delivery is much more than just a far-fetched concept, with Zipline delivering vital medical supplies to rural regions of Africa, and Manna successfully operating a last-mile delivery service in Ireland since 2020. Manna's drones deliver food and medical supplies within a 3km radius in less than three minutes.

The benefits of drone delivery aren't just for last-mile delivery either, as Zipline and others are pushing the boundaries into BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) flights ranging up to 50 miles. And there are other solutions in the pipeline too like DHL's ambitious plan to launch multiple small parcel-carrying drones from a single van.

But there's no getting away from the fact that drone delivery carries with it a huge burden in terms of public acceptance, risk mitigation and regulatory approval. It will happen but it won't be quick and it definitely won't be easy.

Emergency services and disaster response

We are seeing an increasing number of drone-positive stories in this area.

Policing

Pretty much every police force in the UK has a drone team on hand to deploy quickly for monitoring, surveillance, and identification purposes. This was recently given a positivity boost with the release of Sky Coppers on Channel 4 in the summer of '23. Here are some of the drone use-cases for policing:

  • Real-time aerial view: Drones provide a bird's-eye view of large areas, enabling police officers to monitor events from a safe distance and assess situations more effectively. This aerial perspective can be crucial for responding to emergencies, managing large gatherings, and conducting surveillance operations.

  • Targeted observation and tracking: Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging sensors can identify and track individuals or objects of interest, even in challenging conditions or from a distance. This capability is particularly useful for locating suspects, observing suspicious activities, and maintaining public order.

  • Hazard assessment and risk mitigation: Drones can be used to assess the situation in hazardous areas, such as crime scenes, search and rescue operations, or natural disasters, without putting officers in harm's way. This aerial assessment can help officers make informed decisions and prioritize responses.

  • Crime scene documentation: Drones can capture high-resolution aerial images and videos of crime scenes, providing a comprehensive overview of the scene and preserving evidence for investigations. This aerial documentation can assist in reconstructing events, identifying patterns, and locating potential clues.

  • Evidence recovery and evidence tracking: Drones can be used to search for and recover evidence in difficult-to-access areas, such as dense forests, waterways, or crime scenes located in hazardous environments. This capability can aid in the recovery of evidence that might otherwise be overlooked.

  • Visual tracking and evidence correlation: Drones can track the movement of individuals or objects of interest, providing valuable information for investigations. By correlating aerial footage with ground-level surveillance or witness statements, investigators can build a more comprehensive picture of events.

Fire service

Drones are also extensively used by the Fire Service. They provide live images and thermal imagery, as well as enabling insight into areas unsafe for firefighters to physically access:

  • Accurate mapping and visualization: Drones can generate high-resolution maps and 3D models of fire scenes, providing firefighters with a comprehensive understanding of the situation, including the layout of the building, the location of fire, and the presence of potential hazards. This accurate mapping can guide firefighting strategies and resource allocation.

  • Rapid identification of fire spread: Drones equipped with thermal imaging sensors can detect heat signatures, enabling firefighters to quickly identify the location and extent of the fire. This real-time information can help firefighters prioritize their efforts and prevent the spread of the fire.

  • Assessment of structural stability: Drones can assess the structural integrity of buildings, identifying potential hazards such as collapsed floors or compromised walls. This assessment can inform firefighting tactics and ensure the safety of firefighters.

  • Rapid search of large areas: Drones can quickly cover vast areas, making them ideal for locating victims in collapsed buildings, dense forests, or disaster zones. Their ability to access difficult-to-reach locations is particularly valuable in these situations.

  • Targeted search with thermal imaging: Drones equipped with thermal imaging sensors can detect heat signatures, particularly in low-light or smoke-filled conditions. This capability can aid in locating victims in difficult-to-see areas or under debris.

  • Real-time coordination and information sharing: Drone footage can be shared with ground units in real-time, providing crucial information to guide search efforts and inform decision-making. This real-time coordination can expedite rescue operations and improve the chances of locating missing persons.

  • Assessment of hazards and safety risks: Drones can assess potential hazards such as downed power lines, hazardous materials, or unstable structures. This assessment can inform safety protocols and protect firefighters from unnecessary risks.

  • Detailed damage assessment: Drones can provide high-resolution aerial imagery and videos of fire-damaged structures, enabling firefighters to assess the extent of the damage and plan for the recovery process. Drone footage can also provide valuable evidence for insurance claims, providing accurate data for fire-related damages.

Search and rescue

Thermal drones, in particular, have become an indispensible tool for Search and Rescue (SAR) teams. They excellent at pinpointing humans and animals among vast landscapes in both daylight and darkness, where a rescue mission would otherwise be extremely difficult.

Lowland and Mountain Rescue teams now regularly employ drones to help find missing people. Drones not only dramatically reduce the time it takes to search areas but they also help keep members of the rescue teams out of harm's way. Their use can increase the chances of a successful search outcome whilst reducing the overall operating costs which is important as most SAR organisations are run as charities.

Drones are also used by the Coast Guard for both search and rescue and to monitor the coast and seas for criminal activity.

And drones are used for search and rescue missions after natural disasters, as well as to survey disaster zones for potentially hazardous structures.

Did you know? Dronedesk has a "Search and Rescue" variant which is used by Police forces, Fire Services and the Cosat Guard in the UK. We also provide free access to Dronedesk for volunteer-run Search and Rescue organisations across the UK. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more.

Conclusion

Drones are a powerful tool with a wide range of applications which are overwhelmingly beneficial and making a positive impact on our lives. It would be fantastic if we could block all negativity and hear only about the positive but, let's be honest, that's never going to happen. The best we can hope for is that negative press is gradually drowned out by positive drone stories about the innovative and benevolent ways in which drones are being used.

Sensationalist headlines about alledged near-misses, prison deliveries and bomb-dropping drones are not only getting boring but they are potentially doing real reputational damage to the nascent drone industry. So, if you're in the media, here's a request from me; please ease back on the negativity and instead give the following 'drones for good' types of story more coverage:

  • Focus on the humanitarian use of drones. Drones are being used to deliver essential supplies to people in remote areas, to provide medical aid in emergencies, and to search for missing persons. .

  • Highlight the economic benefits of drones. Drones are being used to improve efficiency and safety in a variety of industries, from agriculture to construction to logistics.

  • Showcase the creative and innovative uses of drones. Drones are being used for filmmaking, photography, and even art. These stories can help to show the public that drones are not just for surveillance and warfare.

By focusing on the positive, the media can help to change the public perception of drones and promote their responsible use. Drones have the potential to make our lives easier, healthier, and more efficient, and the media should be part of the conversation about how to use this technology for good. #dronesfogood

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