Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, commonly and henceforth referred to as ‘drones’) have been in use for almost a century, with the 1936 De Havilland DH.82B Queen Bee drone considered by most to be the first modern drone. Its purpose was military in nature – a low-cost target for realistic anti-aircraft training. Drone technology and production has developed such that roughly 8% of Americans owned a registered drone in 2018, with the market expanding far beyond military use. According to Brandessence Market Research, “The Global Drone Market in terms of revenue was worth of [sic] USD 18.28 Billion in 2020 and is projected to reach USD 40.90 Billion in 2027, growing at a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 12.27% from 2021 to 2027.” With this market expansion and diversification, different applications of drones outside of military use are being investigated worldwide.
Interest in drones has been increasing in the technology and e-commerce industry. Giant corporations such as Google and Amazon have been involved in fierce bidding races over up-and-coming drone companies like Titan Aerospace (now acquired by Google). They have been used for a wide variety of applications, including but not limited to: delivery of packages (including extreme perishables and medicine), acting as temporary wireless telecommunications platforms, and maintenance of storage spaces. These applications highlight and demonstrate the three main benefits that drones offer: speed, adaptability, and mobility.
Drones are fast and lightweight, allowing them to complete routes in record-breaking travel time. Google’s fast-growing drone delivery service Wing has become one of the largest residential drone delivery services in the world, and typically delivers packages in under 6 minutes. This provides consumers with access to options not ordinarily available with most other kinds of deliveries. This speed of delivery is versatile and is seeing expansion in many other industries and services, notably emergency response. On December 9, 2021, a 71-year-old man suffering from sudden cardiac arrest was resuscitated using a drone-delivered automated external defibrillator, marking the first time an autonomous drone has been successfully applied in this field. According to Everdrone, the company that operates these emergency-response drones, “Approximately 275,000 patients in Europe and 350,000 in the US, suffer from OHCA [out of hospital cardiac arrest] annually. Approximately 70% of OHCAs occur in private homes without AEDs on site, and ambulance response times are often too long to save the life of the patient. The chance of survival decreases by 7–10% with each minute following the collapse, and consequently, the current survival rate among OHCA patients is merely 10%.” Everdrone had coverage reaching approximately 200 000 residents in Sweden in 2021 and has plans to expand to more European locations in 2022.
Drone technology has also seen further development and use in the agriculture sector. In September, 2021, Australian farmer Roger Woods completed the world’s first fully drone-executed planting and fertilization of sunflower seeds. Sunflowers are plants that grow best when planted evenly spaced and are thus difficult to plant autonomously. Woods’ experimental planting runs yielded information about different factors impacting planting with drones and have also demonstrated some benefits that drones contribute to agriculture. Drones waste less than other alternatives available and do not disturb the ground as much as land-based planting methods do. This preserves the integrity of the soil by decreasing surface erosion and allows for longer-lasting fertility of the land. “For smaller farmers, being able to plant crops from a drone might be economically a better idea than getting equipment in,” Woods says.
The vast mobility of drones, coupled with their ability to fly and thus avoid most obstacles, allows for large increases in the efficiency of logistics planning. This is useful in locations with little-developed transport infrastructure. Ivan Gayton, an amateur drone developer and mapping enthusiast, organizes a group of like-minded individuals to create open-source and locally-sourced drones to map locations that do not currently have detailed information about their geography. All the data this group has gathered has been uploaded to the crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap. Similar applications of drone technology have been used to map events such as the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, giving first responders a detailed overview of the transformed landscape and likely locations of survivors.
Drone technology is rapidly developing and is seeing uses in fields that were previously unthought of. The market value of the industry is expected to increase to over USD $90 bn in the next decade and is becoming increasingly accessible to the public. Over time, it has the potential to completely revolutionize the way entire industries operate and to change our way of life. Thus, while it may be easy to find and think of frightening military applications of these automated machines, it is also imperative to note that there are also countless beneficial uses of drone technology outside of war.