(c) 2013, Slate.
(c) 2013, Slate.
NEW YORK — There's been a lot of news about drones this year — and most of it makes the near future sound like a scary place full of heavy government surveillance and aggressive Amazon marketing. But technology isn't inherently good or bad, it depends how it's used, and some people are trying to harness the potential of drones to make a positive difference in the world. Here are five initiatives that are working to get some good off the ground.
1. RP SearchServices
RP SearchServices is the nonprofit division of RP FlightSystems, a company based in Wimberly, Texas, that offers drone data and other aerial data collection services. SearchServices specializes in search and rescue, support for disasters like fires, and environmental data collection. Gene Robinson, who owns RP FlightSystems and runs SearchServices, says that the group has assisted on more than 100 search-and-rescue cases around the country and has made 10 recoveries that were directly attributable to the UAVs. Furthermore, Robinson says that photos his drones took in Tijuana, Mexico, assisted in breaking up a human trafficking ring, and even allowed for the recovery of a pregnant llama. SearchServices is also partnered with the San Diego State University VizCenter, which has an unmanned aerial vehicle division. RP SearchServices often works with search and rescue groups that don't have required FAA drone certifications so investigations can move forward quickly.
2. Height Tech
To bring defibrillators to remote areas, Height Tech is working on an octocopter system that autonomously delivers defibrillators to people in need. The German company, which also uses drones in movie productions and for surveying, is working with defibrillator manufacturer Schiller and presented the system in August. When prompted, a smartphone app transmits GPS coordinates to the drone so it can find the patient and then drop in a defibrillator by parachute. Currently the Height Tech's octocopters have a range of about six miles and can fly in all weather at 44 miles per hour, so applications are fairly local for now but could still be faster than an ambulance in rural areas.
ConservationDrones.org began in 2011 with a focus on wildlife in Southeast Asia. The founders, conservation ecologist Lian Pin Koh and primate biologist Serge Wich, built their own UAV for about $2,000 and tested it in North Sumatra, Indonesia, for 30 forest and wildlife imaging missions over four days. And enthusiasm for the project, specifically using low-cost drones in research, grew from there. In August, Mongabay sponsored the group to become a nonprofit. ConservationDrones.org is currently raising money to do research and conservation work with Mongolian snow leopards in 2014.
4. Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration
Alaska's enormous size and undeveloped land create accessibility issues and make aviation the only option for reaching much of the state. As a result the University of Alaska Fairbanks's Geophysical Institute started the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration to work on UAV development and research. The group bet that Alaska's geography would create unusual pressure and demand to implement drone systems for everything from public services to resource management. And they seem to be correct. So far the group has used drones for things like fighting forest fires, mapping glaciers and sea ice, search and rescue, and monitoring marine life.
Matternet wants to bring a "physical Internet" to remote areas that aren't easily accessible or don't have consistent transportation options. To do this, the group has a fleet of drones and is developing network solutions that will allow the UAVs to carry and deliver light packages (no kayak drop-offs here, either) like drugs or medical tests. Matternet wants to create a system that can function in extreme conditions and can reach anyone, anywhere. The group claims that "doing good is our first priority." Matternet is for-profit, though, and in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum the company's CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos, said, "Our plan is to develop the technology for other people to set up transportation networks." When asked whether Amazon is a potential competitor to Matternet, he said, "We see Amazon as a potential client rather than a potential competitor."
Hay Newman is a writer living in New York.