‘Hover like a helicopter, soar like a plane’: 5 times drones were super helpful

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s your friendly neighbourhood drone!

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Living, as we do, with the spectre of a surveillance state, drones are often associated with a fear of snooping. Stories abound about a variety of terrifying uses for drones – from craft that “appeared to be custom-made” hovering menacingly close to planes near Heathrow, to the possibility that police will soon be allowed deploy weaponised drones in Connecticut. The latter is chilling, not just because it calls to mind the devastating effects of drone strikes in Syria, but also because of its implications for civil liberties of minority groups already disproportionately targeted by the police.

Yet, despite all the bad press that the unmanned vehicles get, civilian drones are now so prolific that we are even marketing them to children (or at least 14 year olds). This is because unmanned aerial vehicles, like most technology, are dual-use. Not convinced? Here are five times drones were indispensable:

1. Lost film makers rescued from a remote snow-covered forest in Turkey

In February, 10 lives were saved when a film crew that was lost in the snowy wilderness of Turkey’s Aladağ forest were located by a local rescue team’s aerial drones. The group had ventured into the isolated region to find somewhere appropriately emotive to shoot their entry for upcoming international film festivals – "Kar Kirazi" ("Winter-flowering cherry"): a short movie about a man trying to reach a hospital with his pregnant wife, and a disabled girl’s relationship with her father. When the team realised that they were lost, they phoned the authorities, but the rescue crew could not sent out search parties when the terrain was cloaked in snow. Once the drones had sought out the missing people, the rescue team could get to work having bulldozers clear the relevant roads so that the film crew could be efficiently extracted and brought to safety.

2. Missing kayakers located by heat-sensing drones in the US

Barely a month earlier, two kayakers were discovered by drones while lost by a beach in South Carolina. Tides were rising and as night fell, their rescue became more urgent. After less than half an hour the kayakers had been pinpointed using thermal imagery drones belonging to local park rangers and two emergency paddle board rescuers had been dispatched. Luckily, the quick thinking of all the public safety teams and the swift use of the infrared-camera drones meant that the two wayward kayakers were brought back to land with only a few minor bruises and oyster cuts. 

3. Some beaches in UAE already have coastal rescue drones

After a spate of drownings off the coast of Ajman in the United Arab Emirates last year, the maritime rescue team decided to set up a highly advanced coastal unit drone. The state of the art model is fitted with a variety of handy high-tech attributes, such as thermal sensors (you’ve already read how useful those are), high-resolution cameras that can recognise incidents of people who are drowning and enlarge images by up to 38 times for the benefit of human rescue teams, and a link straight to rescue boats that can be rapidly deployed to help those in distress. Additionally, the mod-cons include four life-rings, each equipped with a camera. The drone was chosen with unpredictable circumstances in mind, so is designed to withstand harsh weather conditions, as well as being “virtually impenetrable to hackers due to secret codes”. Within its trial period alone, two lives were saved as a direct result of the new equipment.

4. A man and his dog saved by a tweeted drone picture

Not only emergency service drones can be heroes! As it turns out, drones belonging to human heroes can be also heroes. When Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, veteran Quavas Hart used his drone to scope out areas that had been submerged by the flooding. Although he didn’t see any movement to indicate that anyone had been stranded in nearby houses, he tweeted photos taken by his drone to show the devastation. Twitter user Craig Williams forwarded the tweet to his brother Chris, another army vet, who lived in the photographed area. To everyone’s surprise, Chris identified the house as his. Inside, he and his dog Lana were trapped and panicking. 

In one night, water from the hurricane had flooded his house and shorted out his power. He and Lana had no choice but to sleep upstairs and hope for help. The water level was rising, causing household objects to float around dangerously in the dark, but Chris knew that he and Lana might not survive jumping out the window, as there was a strong current rushing by the house and he had sustained injuries from his eight years of service that made swimming difficult. Luckily, Craig and Quavas had devised a rescue plan. Quavas sent his drone back to Chris’ house and alerted a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team. With Quavas’ drone hovering by the right roof and Chris hanging out his window, Fema were able to get Chris and Lana out of the building and back to dry land.

5. Food delivery drones are right here in the UK

Food delivery service, Just Eat, has been using ground-based drones to distribute food orders in the UK since December. The drones were designed by Starship Technologies, a robotics start-up founded by the founders of Skype and based in Estonia, and are like tiny locked cars, keeping food hot on the way to hungry customers. To ensure that your food is safely transported, upon its arrival customers are texted a unique link that they can use to open the drone’s food hatch. There is also, disappointingly, still a human accomplice who follows the drone to make sure it arrives intact and on time.

Since Samuel Langley built the first fixed-wing steam-powered vehicle in 1896, there have easily been as many different examples of positive drone usage as there are scary news stories. Some drones are equipped to act like metal plant-Cupids, giving a little kick to crop populations that are struggling to be pollinated, others are more suited to shooting stunning panoramic videos of your countryside getaway. Most impressively, robots are saving lives everywhere. And we no longer have to interact (too much) with humans when we order several large pizzas to eat alone.

The drone is to young people today what remote-controlled helicopters were to yesterday’s generation, and the current cohort of tech-wizards and engineers are coming up with the robots that will inhabit their children’s world. Who knows, maybe one day soon Just Eat will stop making their delivery people trail behind autonomous food incubators and will instead employ techno-broomsticks, so that dinner swoops to your doorstep a la the web-comic "Pizza Witch"

Anjuli R. K. Shere writes about science. She was a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman.