Orville and Wilbur Wright would gape in awe at today's flying machines. Not only are these contraptions flying faster and farther than ever before, but some can do it all without so much as a single human being on board. The days of the drones are upon us -- whether we like it or not.
Drones, which are also called unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs), are contraptions that take to the air without human pilots in the cockpit. Instead, people control drones from the ground or, increasingly, the drones simply fly themselves without the need for human intervention.
These machines take all shapes and sizes, all made to address different airborne tasks. Venture capitalists dumped more than $40 million into drone-related startups in 2013, and sales of UAVs could top $8 billion within 10 years [source: Bloomberg]. In spite of this growth spurt, drones are not without controversy.
For years, drones have been making headlines all over the world, as the U.S. and other countries use them for swift and hard-to-anticipate military strikes. That's why many people associate drones with mechanized, faceless Orwellian warfare.
But drones do a lot of other jobs, too, none of which have anything to do with hurting people. These non-lethal drones are on the cusp of transforming all sorts of industries and could revolutionize our economy and lifestyles in ways we could have only dreamed of just a few years ago.
Keep reading and you'll see all sorts of non-murderous missions for UAVs. Don't fear drone-darkened skies just yet -- they may be friendlier than you think.
Farming and ranching are arduous livelihoods, made all the more difficult when landowners must traverse many miles and thousands of acres to check on crops and livestock. Drones skip the slow, muddy roads altogether and take the skies to look for signs of disease, examine crops, or even apply chemicals like fertilizer or herbicide.
Not only does this save farmers from a lot of driving (and gas), it could result in better land management, which could then increase overall yields. Drones also help farmers keep an eye on all of their property and equipment.
Most large farms in the U.S. are in rural areas, where there are fewer concerns about privacy and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) policies regarding small flying craft. So long as the drones remain at less than 400 feet high, they are legal for such purposes.
The next time you see what looks like a tiny crop duster in the distance, look again – it could be that your local farmer is taking his agricultural technology to new heights.
Let the paranoia begin in earnest. As if ubiquitous surveillance cameras weren't enough, now digital cameras will be mounted to drones that tirelessly scour the skies around our cities, all in the name of maintaining law and order.
Police forces must apply for the proper permits or warrants before deploying drones to watch citizens, and some have already done so. They're used to monitor areas for illegal drug transactions, conduct chases, or even help with crime scene reconstruction.
Police can put drones to work on search-and-rescue missions or to perform routine security sweeps at large, crowded events. Some manufacturers are exploring the idea of taking drones a step further, arming them with tear gas and other crowd control measures.
Most forces haven't put drones to large-scale use just yet, though, in large part due to privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, is very outspoken against the use of drones en masse without any sorts of real regulations in place.
You can expect the hubbub over police drones to escalate in the next few years, as departments look to increase efficiency while cutting costs.
For all of the talk about legitimate, non-murderous ways that drones may benefit humanity, these machines appeal to the darker side of human nature, too. Criminals will have all sorts of uses for drones.
International borders (and their accompanying border police) are pesky deterrents for drug smugglers. Drones offer potential for dropping drugs and other booty across border fences at a much lower risk. Not only are drones hard for the authorities to spot, but in the event that the drone is captured, the criminals will likely be miles from the scene.
In 2011, a wannabe terrorist named Rezwan Ferdaus plotted to bomb American targets by affixing explosives to a drone -- making it potentially lethal. But in a scenario that was criminal, but not a danger to human life, in a Brazil prison in 2012, authorities thwarted a drone helicopter loaded with cellphones intended for inmates.
And of course, it's not at all hard to imagine weirdoes from all over the place spying on people using drone-mounted cameras. In short, the potential for airborne mayhem is sky high.
Scientists are always looking for new ways to probe and investigate severe weather. For obvious reasons, they prefer to do their research without risking their lives. That's where UAVs come in.
In 2013, NASA began a program for investigating tropical storms, hoping to find better understanding of why some systems turn into killer hurricanes, while others peter out. For these missions, the researchers selected enormous Global Hawk drones, which have a wingspan as wide as a 737 and can fly for 28 straight hours at a maximum of 60,000 feet (18.3 kilometers), which is much higher than most piloted planes.
Equipped with scientific instruments, the drones provide a constant stream of data regarding atmospheric conditions and storm intensity. Those instruments include a scanning high-resolution interferometer sounder instrument and Cloud Physics Lidar, as well as a dropsonde system from the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Association.
Together, these tools stream data about layered temperatures within a storm, cloud structure and more, providing scientists with a look at the internal structure of a weather system. Weather has many variables that affect storm strength, but thanks in part to drones, researchers are getting a better view -- and better understanding -- of just how all of the pieces go together.
UAVs outfitted with cameras and GPS capabilities are a boon to people who need to track wildlife. Natural resource departments and scientists often need to track individual animals (which may or may not be wearing tracking collars), as well as larger groups of creatures, in order to better understand their behaviors.
Without UAVs, scientists are often stuck slogging through jungles and over mountains, trying to haul unwieldy and expensive gear in order to conduct their studies. Drones, however, let them skim along effortlessly, observing habitat and animals from afar, sometimes with less disturbance.
Drones are already being used to combat poachers. Google is funding a program that buys drones for the World Wildlife Fund, which flies camera-equipped versions above areas where illegal hunting threatens endangered animals.
Law enforcement can use the drones to monitor animals and anticipate potential ambush areas. Small and nearly silent, these drones are perfect for spying on criminals looking to rob countries of their natural resources.
You already know that UAVs help scientists track and dissect the inner workings of hurricanes. But drones can also help in the aftermath of these huge storms and other natural disasters.
Immediately after a natural disaster, authorities need to perform damage assessment, so that they know how many people are affected and how widespread the chaos might be. Drones are a cheap, efficient way to put many sets of digital eyes in the sky.
Outfitted with still, video and infrared cameras, drones are also effective for search-and-rescue missions. They can fly far and wide through an area, following a precise search pattern in order to locate missing people.
They can help first responders like police and fire units figure out where to set up temporary staging areas. They can spot survivors or even listen for sounds that they make, or pinpoint the locations of bodies.
Even if streets are cluttered with impassable debris, drones can immediately take to the air and begin providing critical data. This kind of instant-on capability may make the difference of life or death for untold numbers of people.
Wildfires pose major risks to people and towns, especially in the western areas of the U.S. Forest managers use watch towers and helicopters to spot new blazes and to track active ones, but these are time-consuming, expensive and exhausting tasks.
Launch a drone to keep an eye on the forests, though, and suddenly this job becomes much easier. In one case, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection launched a Predator drone, courtesy of the state's National Guard unit. The Predator, which is roughly the size of a Cessna, was loaded with cameras and infrared imaging units to help it track the infamous Rim Fire, which burned through forests around Yosemite National Park.
In addition to monitoring fires and looking for new ones, drones can help firefighters strategize. They can track the direction of a blaze and keep tabs on weather conditions that push the flames in one direction or another, and alert firefighters to unsafe conditions. They can even drop flame retardant to douse fires that threaten to burn out of control.
Hovering drones can also amplify cell signals so that firefighters can stay in touch with headquarters. This is a huge benefit because so many forest fires happen in locations where cell service is weak or non-existent. Forget Smokey the Bear. Drones are the forest firefighters of the very near future.
Professional and amateur photographers and filmmakers are some of the biggest proponents of UAVs. They buy many of the more affordable models, tweak them to their liking, and use them for all sorts of still image and video projects.
Many current drones come with mounting kits that let you attach a camera to the underside of the machine. With the camera in place, any photographer or videographer has a new world of creative potential at his or her fingertips.
At the Burning Man festival in Nevada, drones fly in arcs over the crowd below, capturing the event's creative spirit from above. Wedding photographers now hover over the bride and groom, to capture unique views of the ceremony and reception.
Before affordable drones came along, those kinds of views were simply impossible to get without a helicopter or giant lift. Now, the skies are open to anyone who's willing to trust a small drone with their pricey photography gear.
The oil and natural gas industries require sprawling, complex infrastructure that can be extremely difficult to monitor. Launch a drone, though, and suddenly these chores become much more efficient.
For example, offshore oil rigs are notoriously hard to access. They're miles out at sea, and there are a whole lot of them -- thousands are in the Gulf of Mexico alone. With drones, engineers on shore can look for safety problems, detect oil leaks, and patrol their rigs for any sign of trespassing.
Both natural gas and oil require many miles of pipeline, and it's tough for companies to keep tabs on these investments. Program a few drones to fly along a pipeline route, though, and the automated camera can send back a stream of images that can detect problems, whether they are nearby or in extremely remote locations.
Drones aren't just about safety, though. Companies also use them to explore the Earth for new sources of oil and gas. With the right kind of laser and infrared sensors attached to a drone, they can conduct surveys of terrain and get a better idea of where they might find deposits of energy sources.
We tend to assume that drones are airborne machines. But as drone technology progresses, these devices are bypassing the heavens and instead learning to swim.
Many new models of drone now "fly" through water on all sorts of missions. Some are used to perform underwater inspections. Companies deploy them to check on oil rigs, fish farms, assess storm damage, search water filtration systems, and view the hulls of ships.
The military uses underwater drones to search for mines. Police can use similar models to look for signs of subsurface drug smuggling. Salvage experts and recreational divers can use drones to inspect sunken ships or even to look for treasures beneath the waves.
Just as with airborne drones, there are limitless uses for underwater drones. All of these drones are literally opening new horizons for all types of businesses and organizations that need remote control robots for jobs that are too hard or too dangerous for people to perform. And while most governments will limit the uses of drones until they hammer out regulations and rules, the day that drones fills the skies and seas is closer than you might think.
Airplanes use ground and satellite transmissions to provide internet access and network TV telecasts. HowStuffWorks looks at the technology.
Author's Note: 10 Non-murderous Things Drones Do Every Day
Particularly in the light of NSA spying revelations, a lot of media headlines regarding drones are rather negative. Writers and producers often write off drones as devices for spying on civilian populations and as weapons for attacking terrorists in far-off lands. But it's safe to say that we've scarcely scratched the surface of what drones can do -- they can work as tools for all sorts of industries to make them safer and more productive. It'll be years before government rules and policies allow for the massive unleashing of drones, but when it happens, drones will transform all sorts of organizations -- often in great ways.
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