The popularity of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which are commonly referred to as drones, is gaining steady momentum over the past few years thanks to its ample qualities useful to a number of sectors and a variety of purposes: increasing work efficiency and productivity, decreasing workload and production costs, improving accuracy, and so on despite the fact that they were originally developed for sensitive and complex military operations.
According to a World Bank report on drones for development, the use of drones in development projects entails a lot of benefits: lower operational costs, lower operational risk to development workers in project areas, more efficient planning and implementation of projects, higher quality data available in larger quantities and more flexible, affordable verification tools. Thus, development professionals are increasingly looking into the usefulness of drones since they require extensive data collection, detailed mapping, as well as regular inspections; when conducted in remote or hard-to-reach areas to design, implement, and evaluate a number of projects efficiently and effectively.
The Uses of Drones in time of Pandemic
“Yes auntie, this is the drone speaking to you. You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask. You’d better go back home and don’t forget to wash your hands.” The video on a sharp-tongued drone talking to people is shot in Inner Mongolia, China in January. Drones with loudspeakers were flying above villages and cities, broadcasting health information to people, especially old people living in rural areas that lack effective communication channels to information.
From the start of the pandemic, drones are deployed on the frontline to combat the crisis. As remotely piloted devices, drones are naturally effective at minimizing human interactions, which is a key barrier currently for delivering services. They are mainly used in four ways: facilitating communication, disinfecting areas, delivering supplies, and measuring body temperature.
- With drones, officials can oversee people’s activities and broadcast messages in dense areas of the city without the risk of contact with those who are potentially infected.
- Medical supplies and samples can be delivered by drones to ensure both safety and speed. The UAVs are also used to deliver groceries or food to further reduce social contacts and risks.
- Disinfectants are used to clean the public spaces that are potentially occupied by infected people. Spraying drones can cover 100,000m2 in an hour with a spraying tank of 16L. The speed is around 50 times faster than traditional methods.
- Drones with infrared cameras are also used to take people’s temperature. So that people don’t have to contact the thermometer that has potentially been contaminated.
How Drones are Being Deployed in Multiple Sectors
Before the pandemic, applications of drones, along with their versatility, has already been seen in a wide range of sectors: transport, energy, water, agriculture, urban development, and so forth as reported by Asia Development Bank.
In the energy sector, for instance, drones equipped with thermal cameras can take three-dimensional (3D) pictures and videos to inspect damages, such as dents or holes, on wind turbines. Such inspection would otherwise have to be done manually by workers by climbing up the wind turbine blades using ropes, putting their lives at risk - which can be dangerous, time-consuming, costly, and ineffective. In a study, it is discovered that the use of drones in Argentina has improved inspection results for the country’s oil and gas refineries, and has brought exponential improvement of safety and efficiency to the country’s top-tier Oil & Gas players including YPF, Shell, Petrocuyo, Edelap and 360 Energía.
Drones are also useful for water projects to monitor remotely at specific times such as shortly after a rainstorm when there is typically more sediment in the water. UAV-based monitoring systems offer the benefits of low-cost imaging at higher spatial resolutions and fully controlled temporal scales.
Drones are also utilized in urban planning since drones, having equipped with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors, can not only give accurate data on the number of houses and trees and other physical structures in a given area but also create 3D maps and high-resolution aerial images to help implement the projects. The United States is a country which is employing drones to maintain its transportation infrastructure. Eighty percent of the US state highway departments now have UAS programs to inspect bridges, pavementments, light-poles, and to gather aerial views of highway construction progress.
In the case of fertilizer planning, nitrogen deficient areas in a crop can be clearly identified from above using drones fitted with cameras that have enhanced sensors which are calibrated to limit the effect of changing sunlight levels and allow a more accurate calculation of the green areas to be made. Drone operators, in controlling weed and disease, can accurately assess weed and disease levels in arable crops, and then weed species and disease can be pinpointed and targeted with high precision crop control measures.
Having the ability to cover large ground areas, drones can also map hundreds of hectares a day, highlighting ground features and any changes that may have occurred. Such data can be used to give area measurements for administration purposes or fed into machinery software to help the operator avoid hazards such as electric cables, flooded areas, changes in water courses, etc. When it comes to crop spraying, drones are capable of applying small quantities of pesticide or fertilizer to crops, orchards and forested areas. One country which has led aerial spraying using drones is China.
ADAMA: how drones are being used in the agriculture industry.
Potential Future Uses of Drones in Development Sector
In addition to using drones in the face of the pandemic and the aforementioned sectors, the potential applications of drones, according to an article issued by the World Bank, are anticipated in other development work, including the delivery of medical supplies, fighting urban and forest fires, providing internet connectivity in rural and remote areas through a perpetually airborne network, radiological, atmospheric, and environmental sensing, meteorology, humanitarian operations, and natural resources conservation and management.
That being said, the drones have the potential to become a part of the new normal in the post-pandemic world. Some believe that the Covid-19 has brought the Golden Age of drone delivery, especially for the last-mile delivery. Drones are in their ways of becoming the future of delivery business. Amazon is planning to use a drone delivery system in the near future with the goal of delivering packages to their customers within or less than half an hour. The globally famous Domino’s Pizza is also implementing the idea of using drones for the delivery of their pizzas in partnership with Flirtey drone delivery service, and they had successfully carried out their first-ever pizza delivery by drone in New Zealand in 2016.
The Hype or the Clever way?
However, the applications of drones are not without controversy.
First of all, the efficacy and viability of the applications are being questioned. For example, the disinfection of air in the communities and cities is not known to be effective for disease control. Similarly, because drones cannot be close enough to people, the temperatures taken by drones are suspicious.
Secondly, the “drone ethics” is still under debate. Surveillance drones are very controversial, but not many drone companies are dealing with data privacy and protection issues.
Thirdly, it can be difficult to scale the applications. In many developing countries, there are not enough local skilled experts in this field. These “foreign-led, top-down, techno-centric interventions” can result in an exacerbated digital divide.
Technologies are born neutral, how we humans make use of them is more important. We need updated policies and guidelines to boost efficiency and efficacy while dealing with ethical issues. To integrate drones into the solution needs expertise and visionaries across the ecosystem. Time is still needed to see whether the use of drones is hype, or a clever new way to tackle crises.