Friendly Drones

These aerial vehicles are being eyed for peaceful purposes and boosting the economy

13 June 2013

Any mention of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), often conjures up images of targeted missile firings or spying missions conducted for military purposes. But there’s another more peaceful picture emerging: drones for commercial use.

A recent report by the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicted high demand for drones that could be used for such applications as spraying crops, mapping wildfires, monitoring weather, and searching for missing persons. These small UAVs usually weigh about 25 kilograms (under 55 lbs.) each. Unmanned aerial vehicles about half the size of a golf cart have been spraying fertilizer and herbicides over farms in Japan for years. Germany’s railway operator recently reported its plans to deploy mini drones that have four helicopter-style rotors to catch vandals who deface its trains with graffiti by taking thermal images of train depots at night. Last month Canada used a drone to locate and treat a person hurt in a car accident in a remote area. A small custom-built octacopter made a 10-minute flight through the city of Guildford, outside of London, in May to deliver two large pepperoni pizzas from Dominos to lunchtime customers.

Test run of Domino Pizza's drone-delivery service

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is developing regulations to open the country’s skies to drones by 2015. The agency estimates that 30 000 drones will be hovering above towns within seven years. The vast majority of U.S. drones will probably be used for agriculture, according to the AUVSI report. Drones can be used to more precisely spray crops, keep track of growth rates and hydration, and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest. The European Commission has announced it is working on plans to open European civil airspace to unmanned drones by 2016. The European Commission's plan was published in September in the working paper, “Towards a European Strategy For the Development of Civil Applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems.”

As more drones take to the skies, they are expected to help the economy soar and with them will come engineering jobs. The global market for drones will grow to US $11.4 billion in 2022 from $6.6 billion this year, according to Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Va., which analyzes the industry. Several aerospace and defense companies, major employers of engineers, stand to gain from broad deployment of UAVs for commercial use. They include Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. In the United States, California, Florida, Texas and Washington are among the states that could see a hiring boom, according to Fortune magazine’s report on states that could dominate the drone economy.

But drones are not without controversy. Privacy advocates and those worried about government intrusion have often looked at drones with weary eyes. According to an article in The Guardian, concerns in Europe are growing that the drones could “have profound consequences for civil liberties."

“With the use of drones in European airspace spiraling, we urgently need greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed," said Eric King of Privacy International. A poll of 1708 Americas conducted last year by Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J., found that 80 percent of respondents said they would be okay with police using search-and-rescue missions and about 64 percent said they would be somewhat concerned or very concerned about their privacy once drones took to the U.S. skies. Four states—Florida, Idaho, Montana and Virginia—have already passed laws to control the use of drones by law enforcement.

Are you concerned about drones being used for commercial purposes? Do you think safety in the skies will become a problem when hundreds of drones share airspace?

Photo: Britta Pedersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Learn More