Let’s get this out of the way up front: The first thing you think about when you hear the word “drone” isn’t pleasant. You think of sleek airborne weapons and the political ramifications of unmanned warfare. You think about privacy and due process and civil rights. But what got lost in the shuffle is the fact that as a technology, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer an increasingly diverse and exciting array of possibilities for exploration, innovation, and commerce.
Drones or UAVs are first and foremost a technology. Over the years inventors have settled upon a framework for a drone — a lightweight, remote-controlled, often rotor-adorned flying vehicle — upon which roboticists and engineers have innovated. By perfecting the basic idea for how a UAV is made and controlled, we’ve come up with some pretty amazing applications and demonstrations of clever coding. The video below shows how precise and dexterous these little robots can be:
And here an intricately coordinated swarm of UAVs looks like a UFO light show:
Of course, UAVs aren’t just a tech demo. As the little hovercrafts’ components become cheaper, easier to construct, and commercially available, every section of society is trying to take advantage of the unique angles they can give us. As a research tool, UAVs are the next big thing. Archeologists are using UAVs to help map ruins impenetrable from the ground. Scientists are using drones to collect storm data, catalog endangered species, spray herbicides in crop fields, survey algae blooms, sample volcano gas, develop search and rescue reconnaissance programs for natural disasters, and track rhino poachers. In short, UAVs are quickly bringing a tiny, whizzing revolution to our scientific tool belt.
And scaling things up a bit, UAV tech could bring us closer to hoverbikes or even start delivering our packages, as shipping giant Amazon plans to try (though commercial drones are grounded for foreseeable future).
No matter how you feel about drone tech, the truth is that you’ve probably already enjoyed their unique point of view. Movies and TV shows alike are turning to drones more and more not only to save costs, but to uncover interesting angles and cinematography tricks. For example, in Pierce Brosnan’s return to the James Bonding we always loved him for — The November Man — UAVs were used almost every day of shooting. Speaking with Nerdist, The November Man‘s drone pilot Justin Chapman explained that UAVs, despite their poor reputation, really open up storytelling possibilities. “Flying UASs produces uniquely compelling shots for aerial cinematography,” Chapman said, adding, “It requires the highest level of skill, knowledge, and safety precaution in the field, even for the best professionals in the industry.”
Citing the extreme skill needed to pilot UAVs safely and effective, Chapman highlights the fact that pilots aren’t just anyone handed a controller. Chapman himself is a helicopter pilot with 20 years of experience under his belt, and no one wants more safety on set (or from UAVs in general) than him. “Flying a UAV may seem easy at first, but it has a huge learning curve,” Chapman told me. “While this technology may be quickly becoming more accessible and popular, the degree to which it can safely be more widespread is limited. UAV pilots need to have exceptional flying skills and extensive knowledge as well as awareness of the latest FAA regulations and safety precautions.”
“Our mission is to create story telling from the air, not to bomb a city or spy on people.”
The November Man’s aerial photographer Chad King echoed Chapman’s optimism and focus on safety. Safety on set was incredibly important, considering that the two UAV operators judge the new film to be the first time there has been a drone team on a feature film from start to finish. “It will probably be a standard in a year or two,” King speculated.
The advantage of a trained drone pilot of set is obvious. Instead of rigging a huge crane to get a steady overhead shot, a 55-pound six-rotor UAV can get a better shot for less. “We were able to create 100% stable crane shots that usually take long to get and are costly,” King explained. For what it’s worth, King thinks that UAV technology is one of the best things to come out of robotics research in recent memory, but even his optimism is tempered as the technology spreads. “Just make sure safety is always the number one priority and you follow FAA rules,” King cautioned.
“And as far as search and rescue goes,” King told me, “[UAVs] are going to save many lives in the future and will be invaluable tool for research.”
UAVs are simple things — like the first remote-control cars were — that simply give us another vantage point. Of course they can be used with terrible intent, as could most robots, but it’s hard to ignore what we’ve already seen with their help. UAVs can bring you inside a fireworks display:
They can bring us closer than ever before to gurgling volcanic cauldrons:
And they can show us the majesty of whales and dolphins like never before:
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.