Photo: Lima Pix

We’ve officially entered the Drone Age.

Drones are regularly in the news these days, and usually, the news is pretty negative:

  • The US military is using drones to bomb the crap out of some remote village in Yemen.
  • Some yahoo crashed his drone-mounted camera into Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
  • Amazon wants to start using drone octocopters to deliver packages — which would be cool if Amazon weren’t an evil corporation that could totally turn into Skynet.

But on a day-to-day basis, we’re seeing people use drones in far more productive, creative, and responsible ways. The world of travel photography alone has irreversibly changed thanks to the joint appearance of drones and GoPros. We now have footage of a drone flying through exploding fireworks. We can now see what it would be like to swoop through the streets of New York City without having to suffer through the Spider-Man movies. And we can peek into the crevasses of Alaskan glaciers without risking life and limb.

As cool as the drone may be for creating sick content, there are a number of even more creative and interesting ways they’re being used that represent the vanguard of the oncoming drone revolution.

1. Exploring the world’s uncharted places

The New York Times recently published an article detailing how archaeologists in Peru are using small helicopter drones to map out remote archaeological sites at risk of being damaged by looters or land developers. Peru has such a huge amount of archaeological sites that have never been discovered or closely studied, so many of them in remote parts of the Andes or Amazonian jungles that it’s just not feasible for archaeologists to explore them any time soon. Drones are basically helping us map out and protect places we may have never known existed otherwise.

This also opens up the possibility of exploring places not safe for humans. The Amazon rainforest is a great example. Human explorers going deep into the forest risk deadly tropical diseases, animal attacks, or getting lost. Drones — just as they minimize risk to pilots in warfare — can minimize risk to explorers. Gold prospectors in the Yukon have used drones to find gold, while relatively affordable drones are already being put to use for underwater exploration.

2. Protecting endangered species

One of the more negative aspects associated with drones is that they can be used for surveillance, stealthily spying on people regardless of location or international boundaries. The other side of any surveillance argument, of course, is that surveillance can also be used to protect threatened people, wildlife, and places.

A fantastic example in the field of conservation is the World Wildlife Fund’s intention to launch anti-poaching efforts using drone technology. Basically, drones would be deployed over a wide area, and relay information to park rangers to prevent poachers from killing animals.

3. Delivering supplies to remote or disaster-stricken areas

It’s already being suggested that drones could be used to deliver supplies to disaster-stricken and remote, hard-to-reach areas. Delivering food or water in the wake of a natural disaster alone could make aerial drones a lifesaver.

This doesn’t stop with humanitarian situations either. Facebook is currently pursuing an initiative to use solar-powered aerial drones to deliver internet to literally everyone in the world.

Presumably this is because Mark Zuckerberg feels like not enough people are on Facebook already, but the idea is a good one. It could in theory be a way to give the world free wifi.

4. Pursuing remote journalism

Seriously. Some reporters are already using drones to see things others might not want them to see. This means both more comprehensive coverage of things like conflicts and violent protests…and more invasive paparazzi, which is probably inevitable.

Still, drones could provide a new way to force accountability on authorities or armies during conflicts. If police are breaking up a protest and a drone’s hovering overhead and an officer decides to crack a fleeing protester on the skull for no good reason, it no longer becomes a “he-said, she-said” situation in which the protester’s word is pitted against the police officer’s. Instead, the violence will be objectively recorded as it unfolds, thanks to drone technology.

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