Keeping an Eye on the Drones

Drones are getting better. Spurred on by consumer interest and commercial investment, these small, unmanned flying vehicles are becoming easier to produce and more streamlined each year.

Noticeable advances in the past years have put more UAVs in the stores and the hands of various individuals. The small, remote-controlled flying vehicles — which were once costly and difficult to obtain — can now be purchased from a major retailer for considerably less.

Not only are these drones more cost-effective, but they’re also comparatively advanced to those available a few short years ago. In particular, models have trended in the direction of self-flying and regularly come equipped with powerful cameras.

For many countries, this availability has led to the issue of small, untraceable, unmanned vehicles invading the airspace. While drones are considered a mere pest in most cases, some isolated incidents exist of drones finding their way into airport airspace or above government facilities, prompting a panic.

Commercial UAVs

Even with the recreational drone market well underway, commercial drone usage is just beginning to take flight. In particular, African countries have started seeing significant investment in commercial drone technologies, as western nations are normally less flexible with their commercial airspace regulations. For these countries, new and efficient drone deliveries can save lives. From blood transfusions to HIV tests, drones are moving necessary supplies to remote areas.

Recent tests were undertaken at Johns Hopkins, where they flew with blood samples. The flight lasted three hours and saw 42 blood samples carried through scalding temperatures in a cooling box. By the end, the samples tested identically to those moved by traditional ground transport. The only exceptions were potassium and glucose levels, which were slightly abnormal. It’s essentially a new form of mobile phlebotomy. With more testing and method perfection, drones could be used to deliver blood samples to proper testing facilities.

Of course, medical supplies are not the only product businesses are interested in using drones for. An efficient air force of drones could feasibly deliver packages for companies like Amazon or UPS directly from the warehouse to the destination. While this would be awesome and incredibly sci-fi, it has one major downside. Every time a drone is employed to make a delivery, it cuts out a human element.

While there are clear upsides to this — drones don’t inherently make mistakes, belong to a union or require payment — the idea of small, flying robots replacing transport drivers is somewhat terrifying. And who is to say that it will stop there? If drone tech improves to the point that it becomes favored over human employees that may quickly become the norm across many markets. Many of us would prefer not to be replaced by robots.

Military Use

We have all heard the stories of drone strikes overseas. The idea of wars fought with armed, flying robots manned by technicians thousands of miles away is something out of an 80s sci-fi novel. It’s also our reality today. Drones tend to make war cleaner for the rest of us — oddly remote in most cases. It helps keep soldiers out of active combat situations and minimizes the sacrifice of human life.

With a greater emphasis on military UAVs, we have less need for ground troops in general, and the military has veered towards specialization and technology roles around the world.

Imagine this. A technician sits in front of a computer, operating a drone with a control stick. Over the course of the day, the drone might scout an area, provide air recon, shadow a specific target or even strike, potentially killing dozens of people in the process. This technician comes to work at 9 a.m. and leaves at 5:30 p.m., goes home, eats dinner and goes to sleep. This is how we fight wars with drones.

Government Surveillance

We’ve all read the dystopian stories — 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and others — and we all know the dangers of an oppressive, technologically advanced government. With more eyes in the skies, reality moves closer to science fiction every day.

Drone use is not limited to overseas. Particularly in areas like border security and domestic drug trafficking, UAVs do a lot of the heavy lifting. Reliance on drones is a good thing in some cases: UAVs provide a better vantage point and often go unnoticed when providing surveillance. They cost less to operate and maintain than paid employees and, like with soldiers, keep human lives out of danger.

However, domestically, there has been panic at the concept of drones infringing on personal privacy. It opens up the possibility of surveilling within someone else’s private property, which is a sketchy legal area.

A Mixed Bag

The advances in drone technology are leading to some fascinating and wonderful new developments. Transporting medical supplies, taking amazing aerial photographs and even providing safety during law enforcement and military operations. All of these contribute to the mainstreaming of drone use.

However, there are always some downsides, including a smaller human workforce, possible infringement on personal rights and a bizarre new war paradigm. In other words, drones might be great, but it’s critical we keep an eye on advancements in robotics in order to keep the industry under appropriate control.