Just over 15 years ago, the US first used a drone in a targeted killing in the Middle East. In the decade since, drone use within the military has only proliferated. Drone warfare is a controversial and highly debated topic, and it has cultivated an atmosphere of weariness around the conversation of drone technology as most see drones as a military weapon and nothing more. But recent developments in the field may encourage the general public to reassess their perception of drones–branching beyond military use, the technology has been introduced to the scientific and humanitarian fields.
One of these developments is a drone delivery service. However, instead of food or Amazon packages, the drones deliver medical supplies to remote or hard-to-reach areas. San Francisco-based startup Zipline introduced the first drone delivery system in Rwanda last year, and the streamlined process makes it feel like something out of the future. Health workers order products via text message, and the orders are received and packaged at their local distribution center. The workers then receive a confirmation text when their order is en route (at 110 km/h), and 15 minutes later their package will arrive by parachute in a designated landing area.
Zipline came into fruition in response to crumbling infrastructure that was making many health facilities in Rwanda all but unreachable. The drones are able to bypass jagged mountains and impassable roads to get medical supplies to rural clinics and hospitals.
Why is a developing country in Africa seeing this technology being implemented before the US? “Countries like Rwanda can make decisions fast and can implement new technologies in concert with new regulations fast, so we’re now in a position where the US is trying to follow Rwanda,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo, told Wired. “They’re not trying to catch up to US infrastructure. They’re just leapfrogging roads and trucks and motorcycles and going to a new type of infrastructure.”
Zipline can manage up to 500 deliveries a day with an average fulfillment time of 30 minutes or less. Next year Zipline will be introduced in Tanzania and, if all goes according to plan, will become the largest delivery drone service in the world.
Another development comes by way of field archeology. Archeologists studying the Black Desert in Jordan have deployed dozens of drones to map the terrain to aid in the production of three dimensional maps. The drones are efficient and cheap, and are able to photograph areas that are a day’s trip away for archeologists on the ground. “We are in the middle of a revolution in aerial survey for archaeology,” says Yorke Rowan, senior research associate at the Oriental Institute. “Drones and photogrammetry provide a cost-effective means of quickly recording 3D data at a variety of scales for an array of research.”
Archeologist Chad Hill of the Oriental Institute setting of a gopro mounted drone
The drones are also being used to document looting, a growing problem in archeological sites in the Middle East as instability and poverty have led to the rise of illegal antiquities excavation and sale. Because of the detail drone photography is able to produce, archeologists can closely monitor any changes in the landscape. With this information, they can tally what has already been looted, determine what is at risk, and work to protect what remains. Ideally, the archaeologists will then pass this information along to antiquities sellers to ensure they are not pre-dating artifacts illegally.
Drones are still a relatively new technology. Despite their initial introduction as a military tool, they have the potential to have a revolutionary impact across multiple fields. It will be exciting to watch their development and the positive effect they could have in the scientific and humanitarian sectors.