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The sky’s the limit … literally

Posted: August 7, 2014 7:47 a.m.
Updated: August 8, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Look up above…in the sky! It’s some kind of bird; no it’s a small plane. Wait, it’s neither. Now I see. It’s an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, “UAV.” Or perhaps you know it as “RAV” or Remotely Aerial Vehicle or as “RPV,” Remotely Piloted Vehicle. An even more current term is “UAS,” Unmanned Aerial Systems. For now, I’ll stop with all the technical terms and use the name most of us novices are familiar with -- “drone.” Merriam-Webster defines the particular “drone” I speak of here as “an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers.”

Contrary to popular insight, drones are undeniably among us, or above us. I believe it to be a fair assumption that in the past drones have not received notably high marks on the charts of public opinion. The drone has earned its inalterable reputation. Predator and Reaper drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians, have indeed tainted Americans’ understanding about drones. And rightfully so. No one wants to learn about the fate of innocent people at any time, in war or in peace. And look at the United States’ unexpected air-assault history -- 9/11, Pearl Harbor. It’s not a surprise we remain “guarded.”

Likewise, we can’t discount privacy rights concerns post-Edward Snowden. Thus the consensus remains that obscure “flying things” incur surveillance and demise. But there is a third part to the “the bad and the ugly.” We mustn’t leave out “the good” in this trio, in this drone scenario. These UAVs are going beyond the borders of conflict.

After several decades of largely being confined to the military arena, drones have plenty of worthy uses, some already in place, some preparing for future possibilities. Drones are expected to become a fixture in the skies in the coming years, with one estimate suggesting there could be 30,000 UAVs hanging out in American airspace by 2020.

Just think for a minute about the possibilities. For the scientists and the conservationists who want to study remote areas like the Amazon’s dense jungles, the ocean’s vast coral reefs, or the wide-open Mongolian Desert, mapping these regions is the first most important step. You can’t analyze or protect what you can’t see. More and more, researchers are using aerial technology to give them a better view of the earth. The data collected is arming scientists with a baseline. For example, a map of the Amazon basin is a reference for how climate change alters or doesn’t alter the rainforest over time. And researchers are now able to survey critically endangered animal species in a more productive way. Drones are starting to be taken seriously as scientific research tools.

Can we see drones working hard to save lives? We already have. In the United States, the first real test for modern rescue drones was revealed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Robots could go deep in to the rubble, farther than humans and dogs were able to. More, there are ideas of net delivery system of UAVs to carry medical supplies and other life-sustaining items in to remote areas especially in times of horrific natural disasters.

Think about the effectiveness of drones in firefighting used for patrolling high-risk areas. The technology was used several years ago in wildfires in California to help spot the hotspots of that fire to determine what direction it was traveling in. Drones enabled search and rescue workers to film the area after the typhoon in the Philippines, determining which streets were passable and the extent of the disaster. Robotics is now giving disabled people the ability to see and navigate the world that was once off-limits.

We can’t leave out the growing number of drone-enthusiasts embracing the young technology as a hobby. Recently, I watched a video a friend took of his family while on vacation at Pawley’s Island. One word -- amazing. To have this unbelievably clear video journal of the pure innocence of his children reveling in a “Disney World” of natural outdoor fun was nothing shy of incredible. We all know Instagram, but how about “Dronegram” where anyone can see the world from a drone’s eyes.

While there will always be not-so-positive implications of the mass use of drones in our global economy and society as a whole, there are obviously many good things to be said about the future of these unmanned vehicles and their favorable impact.

The sky’s the limit … literally.


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