Drones: The Toy That became a Tool

Not so long ago, drones were only a sci-fi concept. Remote control planes and helicopters were either fragile toys unusable for practical applications or high tech military vehicles too costly for all but the biggest players. Today, advances in materials, power, communication and sensor technologies are converging to produce tools with amazing capabilities that we are only beginning to explore.

The film industry is already using drones to replace costly cranes, helicopters and light aircraft, finding that drones are easier, cheaper and more maneuverable. Even amateur filmmakers are using this affordable technology to produce “big studio” results. On a more serious note, search and rescue teams are using drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), to track and recover missing people, taking advantage of this technology’s bird’s-eye view and ability to cover difficult terrain faster and more thoroughly than human searchers.

Not only do drones get around faster, but they can be equipped with the latest in remote sensing technology (including visible­light, infrared, ultraviolet, radar, and ground­penetrating radar – to name a few), which is why the oil and gas industry is using them in Alaska to map geological formations and help locate offshore petroleum deposits. At the same time, drones are helping engineers and scientists working in these facilities learn how to interact with their environment by tracking whales and other endangered species in the area surrounding existing rigs and platforms and providing real­time data on their location.

Not far away, biologists are using drones to track Steller sea lions, taking advantage of the drones’ mobility and quiet engines to gather data that was impossible to acquire by other means. Helicopters were too expensive and their noisy rotors could trigger stampedes in which sea lion pups were trampled to death by the terrified adults.

Alaska is proving an ideal testing ground for drones partly because its extreme climate provides natural torture testing and partly because the airspace there is much freer than in the continental US. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), recognizing the multiplicity of potential applications and anticipating a huge boom in drone use, is working to establish regulations that will ensure safe, smooth and trouble free traffic for operators.

Just weeks ago, in fact, the FAA released proposed regulations for commercial drones 55 pounds and under. And the FAA isn’t the only one taking the drone sector seriously. Investors are keeping close tabs not only on the big name established players in the aerospace sector, but also on fresh, flexible startups with their eyes on the future. Leave the RC toys to the kids – the big boys are playing now.