When it comes to alleviating some of the world’s most pressing problems, perhaps we should look to the skies.
The word “drone” might inspire images of counterterrorism strikes and the future of package delivery. But quadcopters and other autonomous flying vehicles are revolutionizing the ways we tackle the biggest social and environmental issues of our time.
While there are definite drawbacks to using drones in this capacity — problems of privacy, ethics, and cost among them — the technology, when executed responsibly, helps aid organizations, scientists, and everyday citizens transform the act of doing good.
From edible drones delivering lifesaving assistance to rural communities to quadcopters tracking illegal logging in rainforests, here are just a few of the recent ways people have used drones for social good.
1. Humanitarian aid
Unmanned aerial vehicles have a proven track record of being useful in disaster relief efforts. Drones helped aid organizations identify areas of need in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, locate mines displaced by the massive Balkan floods in 2014, and document the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in 2015.
Now, companies are testing to see how drones can regularly deliver humanitarian aid, rather than just inform NGOs where to go.
San Francisco-based Otherlab recently launched the world’s most advanced industrial paper airplanes to do just that. The APSARA glider is made of biodegradable materials, and can carry more than two pounds of lifesaving supplies, such as blood and vaccines. When dropped out of a cargo airplane, the drones’ interior tech helps them steer themselves in a spiral motion to a designated location using GPS and autopilot. It can land within a 33-foot radius of its intended destination.
Another project wants survivors of natural disasters to get their aid and eat it, too. Windhorse Aerospace created an inexpensive prototype called Pouncer, whose wings are packed with food. The protective covers surrounding the food can double as shelter, while the the drone’s plywood frame can be used as firewood.
It can be extremely difficult (and even dangerous) for aid workers to get to people in hard-to-reach areas, whether it’s a rural region of a developing nation, or a country plagued by conflict. But if you cut humans out of the equation, the seemingly insurmountable task gets a little easier.
2. Animal science and research
Drones are helping animal scientists and researchers make strides in their fields, simply by giving them views they never had before.
For example, earlier this month researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute captured rare aerial footage of blue whales “lunge-feeding” on krill. With drones, they were able to gain a new perspective; the whales actually decide which patches of krill are worth going after, based on the amount of energy required and the “nutritional payoff.”
It’s just one example of many in which drones can aid in animal research. Ecologists have used drones to track critically endangered birds, count sea lions, support the Jane Goodall Institute’s chimp efforts, and even help dwindling populations of the southern right whale recover.
3. Anti-poaching and curbing wildlife crime
Drones don’t just help scientists observe animals in their natural habitats. They can also help protect endangered species from poachers.
For the past several years, anti-poaching groups have tapped into the power of drones to save rhinos and elephants in countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Even in places where poaching is banned, poachers break into national parks and kill animals, contributing to the illegal wildlife trade industry that rakes in tens of billions of dollars every year.
But drones can act as a sort of high-tech park ranger, monitoring wide expanses of land to intercept poaching gangs. And their flight paths aren’t random — everything is based on analytical models and massive amounts of data, including incidents of past poaching, the movement of rhinos with ankle trackers, the weather, and more.
Unfortunately, these drone programs can be very costly, and don’t fit every conservation scenario (some drones’ sounds can scare elephants outside park boundaries, for instance). But a couple of increasingly successful examples include the Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd program and the World Wildlife Fund (with funding from Google), which continue to test solutions in various countries.
While elephant and rhino poaching might be the most visible wildlife crime issues, it’s worth noting that drones also help track illegal fishing, which can deplete resources, kill off species, and affect whole ecosystems.
4. Fighting illegal logging
Illegal logging doesn’t just leave the visible destruction of trees in its wake — it also threatens species, destroys ecosystems, and ruins the livelihoods of local communities (and often damages their sacred land).
Enter drones. A number of groups have employed the technology to catch illegal loggers in the act — something that isn’t easy to do when it’s happening in the middle of rainforest.
The Amazon Basin Conservation Association in Peru started using toy planes made of foam to snap photos of loggers and miners, and the ensuing deforestation happening in the Amazon. The drones weigh less than five pounds, with greater range than your typical quadcopter, but they can still carry a standard camera. The group discovered various illegal mines, and used the evidence to help prevent them from moving into protected areas.
The issue also directly affects Indigenous communities living in forest regions. Last year, southern Guyana’s Wapichan community wanted the government to take action against illegal loggers and miners, but they didn’t have proof. So, using YouTube DIY videos, they built their own drone — a fixed-wing glider controlled by flight-tracking software with a GoPro attached. They were able to fly into otherwise inaccessible places, and confirmed not only that loggers were felling trees in protected areas, but also that illegal mines were polluting water sources their community relied on.
5. Medical emergencies
How do you help people who need medical attention in rural areas that aren’t accessible by ambulance? Three words: autonomous medical drones.
Last year, a tech company called Lung Biotechnology PBC acquired 1,000 of EHang’s drones, capable of carrying humans, for its Manufactured Organ Transport vehicle system (MOTH). The collaboration will allow Lung Biotechnology to deliver hundreds of organs to those in need every day. A similar drone, called the Angel Drone, can deliver blood and organ transplants to people in Outback Australia.
6. Sexual health and reproductive rights
If you thought drones couldn’t help advance sexual health and reproductive rights, think again.
In Ghana, the United Nations Population Fund (the U.N.’s arm in charge of improving family planning in the developing world) is flying drones to deliver birth control pills, condoms, and other medical supplies to people in remote regions, where there is little-to-no access to contraceptives. The project is still in pilot phase, but if it’s successful, it could expand to Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique.
Drones are also helping activists navigate anti-abortion laws in the developed world. In 2015, four women’s rights groups launched drones to deliver abortion pills from Germany across the border to Poland, where women were only allowed to have legal abortions in cases of rape or incest. Several of the same groups did a similar action in 2016 in Northern Ireland. The act was largely symbolic, but brilliantly helped to raised awareness of the issue.
7. Curbing pollution
China is infamous for its smog and historic levels of air pollution, but in 2014 it set out to curb the problem — with a drone.
The unnamed drone, created by the Aviation Industry Corp of China and tied to a gliding parachute, was equipped with a chemical catalyst to cut through smog and created artificial wind currents to reduce air pollution. Later that year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection launched a series of drones to detect illegal nighttime emissions from factories.
In 2016, Dubai deployed a fleet of drones to catch people littering and also monitor waste dump sites, beaches, and desert camp sites, as a way to enforce the city’s strict sanitation laws.
8. Refugee search and rescue missions
We’ve seen countless tech solutions to help curb the global refugee crisis, but drones are particularly helpful — and in the Mediterranean, where nearly 900 refugees and migrants have died trying to get to Europe this year, the tech is saving lives.
The NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) first started sending out drones in 2015 from its emergency rescue vessel, the M.Y. Phoenix. Using the drone, they can find vessels carrying refugees and migrants adrift at sea with an infrared-enabled camera, send back coordinates, and help the organization rescue them.
The director of MOAS later said the drones became a vital part of its efforts.
9. Connecting the developing world
Facebook doesn’t want you to call its solar-powered aircrafts, which will beam the internet to the developing world, “drones.” The company prefers “planes.” But whatever you call them, they could drastically increase access to information in the developing world.
Dubbed Aquila, the project aims to get the 4.1 billion people who aren’t connected to the internet online by using radio technology above remote regions. It was first tested last year (and also crashed about 90 minutes later), but the company announced at F8 2017 that the project is improving. Google had a similar program, after it acquired Titan Aerospace in 2014, but announced earlier this year that it was abandoning the project.
Facebook also recently announced that it built a large drone that could connect people in disaster areas to the internet, but it’s still in early testing stages.