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Weekly Trend: Creative Uses of Drones Not Getting Grounded By the FAA

Until now, drones have remained grounded in the U.S. There are several culprits: negative consequences involved with infringing air space; regulation of said airspace; and the natural privacy ramifications tied to having a small human-operated machine attached to a camera and which can seemingly go anywhere and everywhere.

Yet, the potential for drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—has real-world applications and an exciting future in fields ranging from mapping to education, in spite of efforts to keep them on the fringes. Despite the Federal Aviation Administration cracking down on regulations for commercial drone use, drones make great learning tools whose applications we haven’t even begun to fully explore.

Tech Page One, a Dell portal that focuses on tech innovation and culture, published a piece recently on the many applications of drone technology at universities. The list ranges from fun to inspiring: from textbook deliveries to drone-made art, UAVs have a lot of potential uses to be explored.

The most obvious use of drones for didactic purposes—mapping areas humans cannot easily access—has gotten some recent press, for instance: CBS reported this week that an underwater robot has been able to help map the treacherous Antarctic waters and the ice contained therein. This is big news—not just for climate science, but also because it challenges the public’s perception that drones are for aerial use only.

Drones—the aerial kind this time—have also made amazing strides in 3-D imagery: Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported on how an algorithm developed at Lockheed Martin has taken an enormous task, such as organizing UAV aerial photos of a plot of land, and produce a map in a few hours. This kind of map can help in crop planning and monitoring, as well as disaster assessment.

Over in Hawaii, the University of Hawaii in Hilo has partnered up with the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, as well as Civil Defense, to fly a drone over lava flows and develop strategies to predict which direction the next flows will go. Because it is not commercial, this activity has been cleared by the FAA. The robot has proved to be useful on days when helicopters –which were the imaging tools available for this task until this point – have not been available due to their involvement in other missions. However, this isn’t a total win for university uses: Although the FAA seems to have approved UH-Hilo’s missions, it recently opposed the University of South Florida’s plans to teach students how to use drones safely.

Great strides and a wonderful display of creativity are behind drones’ latest uses. Yet, Daily Dot sums up why drones still make many uncomfortable: Namely, drones make people uneasy because they simplify spying and erode our perceived sense of privacy. There are also safety concerns: a UAV can and does fall out of the air on occasion, and it can severely injure or kill people when it does so. Furthermore, because drones do not have a pilot or crew,  the FAA is still not entirely sure how to regulate them.

Although it appears that only non-commercial uses for drones are the ones that are being able to circumvent regulation, such as the UH-Hilo drone use, startups should consider focusing on developing solutions to increase drone safety and retrieval. After all, being able to guarantee a safer flight could be the push that the FAA needs to ease up on restrictions. Another field of expansion could be found in better algorithmic software to make sense of raw data collected by drones, especially for mapping. Once they are recognized more for their potential and seen less as a threat, drones will join all the other devices we now take for granted.

Maria Helena Carey

Maria Helena Carey is a freelance writer, photojournalist and blogger in Washington, D.C.