One day in the not-so-distant future, an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone, flies over an apple orchard.
As it zips around, it snaps high-definition photos and runs them through software that analyzes the crops’ health. The software homes in on a corner of the field that doesn’t look so good: Insects are attacking the apples. The drone turns and heads toward the area. Sprayers on its wings dispense pesticide, killing the insects that are harming the trees. Then the drone returns to its patrol.
Weeks later, an apple from that same orchard arrives at a grocery warehouse near you. From your cell phone, you add it to your cart and click “deliver.” Twenty minutes later, you hear a whirring noise outside. A different drone lands on your doorstep. It sets your apple down and zips away.
This scenario sounds like science fiction. But scientists think it could become a reality—and probably sooner than you think. From moviemakers to animal conservationists, people are already finding ways to use drones.
Drones were first built in the early 1900s for military pilots and gunners to use as target practice. Today the military remains the leading user of drones (see Drones at War, p. 15). But as drones have become smaller and more affordable, people outside the military have begun to use them.
“The thing that really surprised me when I started working with drones is that there are so many applications right off the bat,” says Christopher Vo, director of education for the DC Area Drone User Group in Washington, D.C.
Today, the hottest application for drones is in Hollywood. Filmmakers are using drones equipped with cameras to capture footage that would otherwise be dangerous and expensive to shoot. Action scenes, for example, have traditionally been filmed using helicopters. To capture the shot, the crew sometimes performs risky maneuvers, flying very low and close to the subject being filmed. The helicopters are also expensive to rent: They can cost $10,000 per day.
Camera drones, by contrast, can get close to the action without endangering lives. And they’re far less expensive than helicopters: A state-of-the-art camera drone costs about $25,000 and can be used over and over again.
Drones are also being used in the new field of precision agriculture, like the high-tech apple orchard you read about earlier. Today’s farms can span as many as 10,000 acres. With all that land to monitor, farmers rely on technology to help them keep an eye on their crops. To do that, they currently purchase photographs taken by satellites. But these images are expensive to buy, and since they’re taken from space, they don’t show fine detail.
So farmers are starting to turn to drones. Drones’ relatively low cost means they can be out over the fields every day, monitoring the crops and alerting the farmer when an area looks like it needs more attention. Because that lets farmers target spots that need treatment, they can use less water, fertilizer, and pesticides overall, which saves money and is better for the environment. Brian Taylor, director of the University of Minnesota Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Laboratory, estimates that most farmers in the U.S. will use drones within five years.
In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) got a $5 million grant from Google to come up with new ways to end wildlife crime in Africa and Asia. The solution: camera drones. This year, the animal conservation group will launch drones to watch over rhinos, elephants, and tigers. The drones will help scientists track down poachers who hunt the endangered animals and illegally sell their horns, tusks, and eyes to be used in everything from carved trinkets to traditional Chinese medicines.
In the U.S., Mark Ditmer and John Vincent, biologists at the University of Minnesota, hope to use drone technology to study American black bears. The bears live in dense forest vegetation, which makes them hard to find, and they often flee when they sense humans nearby. Even if scientists manage to get close, their presence can change the bears’ behavior. Ditmer and Vincent hope to use camera drones to solve both problems. The pair want to test their idea on black bears that have already been implanted with devices that measure their heart rates. Data from those devices will tell Ditmer and Vincent if the drones stress the bears. If not, scientists may be able to use drones to study all kinds of animals in their natural habitats.
The bear project is on hold as Ditmer and Vincent wait for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The government agency is currently facing a debate about privacy and safety issues.
The public is concerned that camera drones could be used to peer into windows and spy on people. And since drones don’t have flight guidelines, critics worry that they could crash into buildings, people, and other drones. Before drones can be flown over populated areas, says Taylor, rules are needed about who can fly them, and when and where.
Some companies aren’t letting these hurdles stop them from investigating uses for drones. Amazon says it intends to start a new service called Prime Air as early as 2015. It says it will be able to deliver packages via drone in under 30 minutes. Pizza deliveries could follow.
Drones might even deliver Internet access. Facebook is working on a project that would launch drones that broadcast Internet signals to parts of the world that aren’t connected.
FAA guidelines could help clear the way for personal drones too. Already, anyone can go online and buy a camera drone for a few hundred dollars. In the near future, people could use drones to snap selfies from the perfect vantage point or record footage as people skateboard or play soccer. Someday, personal drones could even race you during your workout.
Experts say that once we figure out the rules, the sky is—literally—the limit.