Acton Institute Powerblog

Using Drones for Good

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Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been a prominent and controversial topic in the news of late. Today, the Washington-based Stimson Center released its Recommendations and Report on US Drone Policy. The think tank, which assembled a bipartisan panel of former military and intelligence officials for the 81-page report, concluded that “UAVSs should be neither glorified nor demonized. It is important to take a realistic view of UAVs, recognizing both their continuities with more traditional military technologies and the new tactics and policies they enable.”

The report is thoughtful, and balanced, and makes a point that most discussions about drones miss. For the most part, the conversation has primarily been about the great evil that drones could cause—though of course Amazon has been in the news a fair amount by their desire to use drones for shipping packages. But what about the potential good that drones could do? Just because something could be used for great evil doesn’t meant it couldn’t also be used for something virtuous. Although this report focuses on military and government use, it’s interesting to look at the uses of drones for good in nonmilitary activities.

A worthy example is Matternet, a relatively new company that hopes to use drones to bring lifesaving supplies like food and medicine to villages without easy access to roads. From their manifesto:

We founded Matternet on the belief that we should take the most advanced technology where it’s needed most. It’s our fundamental belief that technological solutions will evolve faster and better where the need is most extreme.

So we designed Matternet to connect drones to every possible fulfillment service, creating a federated infrastructure that realizes the full potential of the internet. We want to bring fulfillment to where need exists rather than where roads end. The beauty of UAVs is no physical infrastructure. UAVs fly wherever there is air, and air paths can be authorized. It’s dematerialised infrastructure. It’s software infrastructure.

Matternet, and founder Andreas Ratopoulos, recognized that drones are tools and took the opportunity to help individuals who were previously unable to receive aid. You can watch a brief video from the perspective of a drone in Port-Au-Prince here.

Tech Columnist for Yahoo News, Rob Pegoraro recently wrote about some of the different ways organizations and governments could employ UAVs for good:

1. Agriculture …At a meeting Saturday of the DC Area Drone User Group, Unmanned Sensing Systems International marketing director Kenneth Druce explained how he can use a drone to survey cropland in near-infrared light. That highlights which plants have a higher concentration of chlorophyll (think of NASA’s red-hued Landsat photos), which in turn tells the farmer which areas are getting too much fertilizer, which in turn can mean less excess fertilizer running off into the Chesapeake Bay, which in turn may eventually mean that a healthier bay leads to me paying less for crab cakes and oysters.

2. Civil engineering could use help from drones as well. Think of annual bridge inspections, as explained in this report from Missouri NPR affiliate KBIA. In this case, the usual “Will these flying robots kill us all?” safety worries are trumped by the current reality: Inspectors who rappel down bridges or climb up towers sometimes get hurt themselves.

3. Journalism also offers tantalizing prospects for drone-assisted reporting — by which I don’t mean making life easier for Hollywood paparazzi. Syracuse University journalism professor Dan Pacheco (note: a friend and long-ago colleague at The Washington Post) ticked off such possibilities as documenting the aftermath of tornadoes and other natural disasters (something Little Rock, Arkansas, station KATV did in April); providing an overhead view of such widespread environmental issues as pine-beetle infestation in his former state of Colorado; and gathering aerial footage of outdoor gatherings and travel destinations.

4. First responders have already benefited from extra sets of robotic eyes. At a quarry fire in Branford, Connecticut, this January, firefighters relied on a drone brought by volunteer firefighter and drone enthusiast Peter Sachs — yes, the guy in David Pogue’s video from last week — to see how close the fire had gotten to a cache of explosives. The answer: about 40 feet, or far enough away to send in firefighters to put out the blaze.

The use of UAVs is extremely complicated: there are privacy concerns, human rights concerns, retaliation concerns, and dozens of others. But they have so much potential to do good it’s disingenuous to simply perceive these valuable tools as inherently evil or as war machines.