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Drones 4 Good: Tackling the PR problem
Drones have a serious PR problem. If you close your eyes and picture a drone in your head, you probably think about warfare. But like any other technology they can have positive uses to counter the negative: consider 3D printers being used to manufacture guns, dynamite’s appropriation from a mining tool to a terrorist aid and internet privacy systems like Tor offering no distinction between protecting political dissidents and pedophiles. Drones, like so much emerging technology, fly firmly in the grey area of our moral matrix.
In North London, one cold day in September, some of the most influential minds in drone technology came together to discuss the bad name drones have gotten, in an unapologetically pro-drones conference: Drones 4 Good. Mixing speakers from the worlds of conservation, law, agriculture and even cinema, it’s clear that the uses for drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are far from just being confined to the military, though their versatility ensures its pretty clear why they will likely be a General’s best friend in wars to come.
Indeed, it’s often difficult to seperate the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses, especially when our mistrust of UAVs goes back generations. Even when discussing the humanitarian uses for drones, Professor Nick Avis of The University of Chester can’t help but refer back to an early example of drone bad press: doodlebugs during the Second World War. The most efficient way to take them down, he notes, was to fly alongside these incredibly volatile unmanned exploding vehicles and try to tilt their wings up, so they flew off target and detonated (hopefully) without collateral damage. It’s no wonder they get a bad press.
Even the positive coverage in the media tends to be quirky rather than genuinely ‘good’. Both Amazon and Domino’s Pizza ensured widespread coverage across the internet when they announced they would be experimenting with drone delivery. But this kind of benign convenience isn’t really seeing the true brilliant potential of how drones could – and are – changing the world for the better.
Delivering pizzas quickly is neat. Delivering vaccines to parts of the world isolated from traditional deliveries is truly life saving and something that is clearly, unambiguously good. Monitoring crops, assisting in mountain rescue, mapping out the Colorado flooding situation: there are areas where drones can assist where humans either can’t or won’t step in. Even technology giants like Google have their own steps in a similar field with with Project Loon, which involves floating balloons 60-90,000 feet into the stratosphere to provide internet access to those without a traditional connection.
Similar is drones emerging use in fighting forest fires. Nitrofirex is hoping to transform the dangerous and inflexible current system for dealing with forest fires by promoting the release of Autonomous Gliding Containers (AGCs) packed with three tons of water each. These AGCs have been developed to cope with the sudden loss of 80% of their weight, and can comfortably fly up to 70 miles back to the nearest airport to be deployed again, without being affected by human concerns like poor visibility, adverse weather or night time. Most importantly, they don’t risk costing human life in the progress.
Of course ‘good’ doesn’t have to just come from the concept of saving lives, and one area where we’re likely to see subtle change in the next few years is the use of drones in cinema. Simon Nielsen, CEO of Ctrl.Me Robotics calls drones “the new tripod”, allowing for new creative shots that would be impossible to get with conventional cinematography. Nielsen has high hopes for things only improving in the next 3-10 years, with drones getting their own AI to do “things we’re not even thinking about right now” and “have an intelligence to adapt to the environment around it.” With self-driving cars becoming inevitable, Nielsen points out that the open airspace and lack of traffic means this self-determination should be even simpler for drones.
This is just scraping the surface of positive drone uses, of course – arguably the most exciting areas are those in conservation and what the future holds. Watch this space in the coming weeks as we examine those in more detail…