Is it possible to more accurately apply fertilizers and pesticides and reduce their use accordingly? Drones in agriculture already make this possible. These small aircraft can observe large-scale fields, using optical imaging to determine the precise locations of crop growth and damage (for instance caused by severe weather or weeds). Drones can also assist in tracking down baby deer hidden among the stalks, to rescue them from the combine-harvesters when hay is harvested. By means of infrared images, farmers can additionally determine where sick plant stocks are located; healthy plants reflect infrared radiation differently than sick plants do.
A further idea for drone use—to spray pesticides in a more ecological manner—comes from China. By constantly scanning the ground, a microwave radar can maintain the correct spraying distance from the crops. The manufacturer claims that because of this, drones are forty times more efficient than conventional means of applying pesticides. Meanwhile, the Japanese have recently attracted worldwide media attention by using drones as “artificial bees” to pollinate plants.
Skypixel / Rodel Dionaldo
Professional drones have long been used in meteorology to take measurements high in the air. But it wasn’t until they became cheaper, mass-produced products that they began to be widely used to check the weather and more quickly and reliably predict any changes—to provide more effective storm warnings, for example. These mini-helicopters are outfitted with special sensors for monitoring data such as temperature and air pressure. High-performance drones can even be flown into the spouts of tornados and the eyes of hurricanes and typhoons.
But these aircraft aren’t only good for short-term forecasts: since the year 2000, drones have been used to study the condition of sea ice in the polar regions. Last year meteorologists and physicists undertook measurements for the ISOBAR climate research project above the Arctic Circle. The project’s goal is to better understand changes to the climate and thus to determine what sort of weather the world can expect in the future. The researchers brought along particularly robust and durable drones they had developed themselves, which they used to measure meteorological parameters including temperatures and wind speeds, but also the composition of the sea ice itself.
Deutsche Post DHL Group
A mini-helicopter as a package delivery service—this idea, as developed by delivery and logistics giant Amazon among others, is one of the most well-known potential areas of application for the future. Frank Appel, CEO of Deutsche Post AG, the German courier company, remarked that some mail carriers might possibly soon require a drone pilot’s license. At the moment, the use of drones is being tested for selected individual applications, for instance for medications that must be delivered to places that are otherwise difficult to reach. Initial successful pilot projects have already been carried out by Deutsche Post on the East Frisian Islands and in Bavaria.
In Cambridge, England, Amazon carried out its first delivery by drone last year. The aircraft placed the package on a landing marker in the customer’s garden thirteen minutes after the order was placed, then flew back to its starting point. In the future, drones might not even need to land any more—instead they’ll just drop off the package from the air. To keep the package from exploding upon impact, scattering its contents across an area of several square meters, a parachute will soften the landing.
At least that’s the idea. However a study by Gartner, a market research company, published in 2016 and titled “Forecast: Personal and Commercial Drones, Worldwide” puts a damper on expectations: in the near term, logistics drones would at most be used for niche applications and account for a maximum of 1 per cent of drones used commercially. A more conceivable use would be within companies, for example to transport items across large business campuses.
Skypixel / Ludovic Moulou
Drones can also be fitted with a wide array of sensors, which makes them interesting for scientists from a wide variety of fields. One example is archaeologists: drones can be used to examine archaeological sites that are difficult to access—without changing or compromising the surroundings.
In the natural sciences the application possibilities are almost endless. Behavioral scientists have already used drones to study the predatory behavior of humpback whales. Volcanologists use drones to obtain spectacular images of lava lakes. And even coral reefs can be examined from the sky, thanks to special high-definition cameras.
Rescue may soon be coming from the skies for swimmers in distress off the Atlantic coast of France. On the beach at Biscarrosse, southwest of Bordeaux, drones were tested last year to help rescue swimmers from drowning. The devices can provide initial assistance for swimmers in trouble, since the lifeguards often have difficulties getting to them through the rough surf and high waves. A drone can reach a swimmer in seconds and drop a buoy that inflates upon contact with water; the person needing rescue can cling to the buoy until additional help arrives.