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Drones: Just a tool of war or a life-changing device for the people who need it the most?

15th of December 2013, 0 comments, category: Innovation Stories

by Fleur Pozzi, for Onclaude

Amazon has been in the news recently, as Chief Executive Jeff Bezos announced the company is five years away from making deliveries by drone through a service they intend to call Amazon Prime Air. It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem; in fact, DHL were quick to reveal that they had already sent a drone on a short flight across Bonn, Germany. What differentiates the two perhaps is that DHL is focusing on delivering essentials to remote locations, something which fits in well with the postal carrier’s disaster relief efforts; the company sent a response team to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan struck last month to oversee the logistics and distribution of relief supplies there.  

Drones are typically seen as an aggressive military tool. There is considerable controversy surrounding the US’ increased use of drone strikes in Pakistan as part of its War on Terrorism. The Pakistani government says such strikes undermine its legitimacy and there is growing resentment amongst the people. More worryingly, however, are the civilian casualties that seem to arise with alarming regularity. Yemen, another frequent target of such strikes, reported just a few days ago that 14 members of a wedding party had been killed in what appeared to be a drone strike gone wrong; the US government has not acknowledged the incident, but is thought to be responsible. 

In light of Amazon’s announcement, Samy Kamkar has released details of his SkyJack drone, which is designed to locate other drones, hijack them wirelessly and proceed to control them. Kamkar is the hacker responsible for releasing a worm that took down the MySpace site in 2005. These days he works more legitimately for governments and companies identifying weaknesses in their systems. It’s not difficult to see how terrorists and criminals might seek to exploit such a possibility in the future; as Kamkar says, we could one day see swarms of “zombie drones” taking over the skies. 

More positively, some innovative and interesting ideas emerged from the TEDGlobal conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland last summer and drones might not be all bad news after all. Andreas Raptopoulos talked about how the company he co-founded, Matternet, is developing drones which could deliver food, medicine and other necessities to hard-to-reach areas in developing countries. Following successful trials in Haiti last summer, Matternet is now pressing ahead with its plans. There’s a particular interest in Sub-Saharan Africa, where infrastructure is said to be around 50 years behind that of the developed world, with 80% of roads completely unusable in the wet season.

Watch Andreas' talk at TEDGlobal:


Another venture that generated some buzz was that of ConservationDrones.org. Co-founded by Lian Pin Koh, the organisation has been sending inexpensive drones out in Sumatra, Indonesia to study orangutan populations. The drones find nests in the trees and efficiently collect data, eliminating the need to send actual teams out into the forests. More broadly, the organisation is looking at the health of forests, trying to identify any changing patterns and highlighting illegal logging activities. Similarly, Insitu Pacific is using drones to monitor marine mammals off the coast of Australia.

Consumer drones now appear to be the next big thing we can expect to see in the near future. The prospect of having parcels delivered in half an hour is sure to appeal to most consumers, but there’re serious issues to consider such as the risk of injury to people on the ground, the security of goods during transit and the need to have data protection and privacy at the core. The greatest hoop of all Amazon is likely to face, however, is the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It has thus far banned all commercial entities bar one (oil and gas group ConocoPhillips Alaska) from operating drones; efforts to regulate the sector are underway now, but they will take time.

Amazon might well find itself pipped to the post by the likes of Australian book rental company Zookal, since Australian law already allows for the use of drones for commercial use. What is sure is that, one way or another, consumer drones are coming our way soon. Whilst the secrecy that shrouds how the military uses drones is a very valid concern, this doesn’t mean that this powerful technology should necessarily be constrained. Indeed, drones already have many legitimate and even beneficent uses and we will just have to wait and see what this latest one brings.

Watch a video on Matternet's vision:


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