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A Drone SnotBot And Other Ways That Flying Robots Can Save The World

From collecting whale blow to teaching autistic kids, socially beneficial uses of low-cost drone technology are starting to take off.

A Drone SnotBot And Other Ways That Flying Robots Can Save The World
[Composite: Harkoo, Source Photos: Robert Mandel and Valentin Agapov via Shutterstock ]

Timothy Reuter started the DC Area Drone User Group in August 2012 to find people who could teach him to build drones. Today it’s grown to more than 5,000 people and expanded to 18 cities and regions. As one of the world’s largest networks of civilian drone users, the Drone User Group Network is like the Homebrew Computer Club for the UAV age.

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From delivering pizzas to tracking down wildlife poachers, today there is no shortage of talk about the socially beneficial applications for drones. That’s why the Drone User Group Network opened up a $10,000 prize social innovation award to not only encourage people to dream up new uses for low-cost drone technology but to also move forward in making them a reality.

“People are throwing out a lot of ideas in terms of what could be done,” says Reuter. “The challenging part is actually following through and doing it. … We wanted to encourage people and community groups to find partners and innovate on the applications side.”

The contest, which was sponsored by UAS America Fund and NEXA Capital Partners, required that drones used in the proposed project cost less than $3,000–a cost limit that includes the hobbyist class technology and slightly higher-end vehicles. The several dozen submissions included drone applications that were both surprising and important.

The Drone User Group Network will announce the winners of its awards this weekend at its conference in Dallas. Here are a few of the most interesting entries:

Meet the SnotBot, The Whale Research Drone

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The Ocean Alliance is working with Olin College to develop “benign research tools” that prove you can study whales without killing them (ahem, Japan) or even stressing them out. The drone is launched from a boat and flies over to a whale and collects blow samples–which is essentially the snot and mucus lining that comes from the blow hole. The $2,850 drone package allows conservationists to study the DNA and stress hormones of whales without disturbing them or requiring expensive airplanes.

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Taking Autism To The Skies

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Paul Braun is a sales executive in the surveying industry whose son has autism. Last year, he created a Kickstarter project to teach a small group of young children on the autism spectrum how to build a drone, learn to fly it, plan a mission, and then produce a video for others. The result, as you can see in the video above, is adorable and now he wants to scale-up the work to use drones to teach kids on the autism spectrum both better social skills and concrete skills in drone technology that could get them a job one day. It’s just one of the many proposed uses of drones in schools and in science and technology education.

Estimating The Size Of Crowds, Rallies, And Protests

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For the last 50 years, social movements have not really evolved in the way they measure the turnout of their rallies and protests, even though their size is critical to demonstrating their strength and legitimacy. Researchers at Central European University’s School of Public Policy devised a simple method for counting crowds with a drone–without the help of any developers or engineers. “If we can do it, every single NGO or civil society group across the world can use this,” they say.

Overall, it’s clear that these entries are just the tip of the iceberg of the applications we’ll see as the cost and ease of using drone technology drops, and as countries like the U.S. get their acts together on the regulation front.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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