When you think of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, your first thought is probably of the military. Images of airmen flying drones into hostile territory and neutralizing the enemy were all over the news during the Iraq War. But drones have some great uses on the civilian side - now and into the next century.
UAV's are defined as a "powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload." Drones are typically used in situations where sending a manned airplane or helicopter is dangerous or more costly. There are generally two types of drones: ones that are remotely controlled and those that are pre-programmed.
The development of drones began in the 1950's when the USAF became concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory. When the Russians shot down a USAF U-2 in 1960, the Air Force pushed to open the "Red Wagon" project, a highly-classified program to design and build the first unmanned vehicle. Since then, smaller and better drones have come out of the R&D labs, providing another layer of protection to the United States and its allies.
Though drones were first developed for military's needs, they are quickly becoming valuable assets on the civilian side too. These uses can include:
Security – Remote-controlled UAV's are great for security of spread out property such as large industrial complexes and pipelines. Even better, these drones can be set up with special cameras, like ultra-violet or ones that can detect heat, that can help operators see what is going on in the dark.
Firefighting – Drones can be used to get aerial imagery of wildfires. This critical information can help firefighters plan their attack and save more homes. Even better, drones can fly through smoke and bad conditions without risking life and limb of a human pilot.
Exploration – Though most of the world has already been explored, there are still parts where it is considered unsafe for human to travel. Drones are perfect for these applications, going where scientists and explorers want to go without endangering lives. For example, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization, currently uses drones to study hurricanes - something that just can't be done with a manned flight.
Finding Mineral and Oil Assets – UAV's can be set up with different types of cameras and scientific equipment to allow for oil and mineral companies to find new assets quicker and more efficiently.
Space Exploration – Drones aren't just for use on Earth. Scientists are beginning to see real-world applications in the exploration of other planets. One such scientist is Jason Barnes, who has designed a UAV that could "cruise the methane skies of Saturn’s moon Titan almost indefinitely, beaming data and images back to Earth" without any risk to the planet or human life. Sounds cool, doesn't it?
Transportation – Existing drones can be retrofitted to carry cargo to dangerous location, either by the addition of an external sling or a cargo bay. These are perfect for when medical supplies or food are urgently needed but a helicopter or plane cannot get into the site safely.
Search and Rescue – The next time you get lost at sea or in the mountains, the local Search and Rescue or Coast Guard may not send out their crews to look for you. Instead, they could send up one or two remotely-controlled drones to search instead. Not only can they cover more area in a shorter period of time, but they can see more, thanks to their special set of cameras.
As you can see, unmanned aerial vehicles aren't just for the military anymore. Companies are beginning to find more and more innovative ways to apply this technology to the civilian world, not only saving lives but making life easier for everyone.