This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Drones were created as a tool of combat: Militaries use them to spy and even to assassinate. But as with so much military technology, unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming consumer items. Recently consultancy firm PwC estimated that the global drone industry may be worth $127.3 billion. In December, Amazon made its first delivery by drone, bringing a TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn to a customer in the U.K.
Among the most eager to harness the power of remote-controlled aircraft are aid and service organizations—those performing dangerous humanitarian and conservation tasks in the world’s hard-to-reach areas. Drones are monitoring vultures on the steppes of Mongolia, delivering medical supplies in Rwanda, and searching for lost civilizations in Brazil.
One week after the Amazon delivery, UNICEF and the government of Malawi announced a plan to open Africa’s first testing site for humanitarian drones in 2017. On the 25-mile-wide airfield, companies can examine how drones fare on a range of assignments—tracking people fleeing disasters, for instance, or bringing cell phone networks to remote areas. “A company testing drones in a warehouse in San Francisco is not facing the same challenges,” says UNICEF’s Andrew Brown. “What’s produced here will work anywhere in the world.” Elsewhere in Malawi, UNICEF has experimented with sending drones to assess flash flood damage and transport HIV blood tests from rural medical centers to laboratories.
Already drones are becoming vital tools in the intensifying fight against poachers. “We want a drone to help us see things we can’t see standing by the jeep,” says Colby Loucks, who leads WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project. Drones can show rangers whether poachers are armed and where they’re hiding. “Drones will help keep rangers safe,” says Loucks. He hopes to outfit the drones with thermal cameras and snare-identifying radar.
Scientists at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. plan to employ drones for a truly ambitious conservation project: documenting much of the world’s wildlife. In 2015 biology professor Serge Wich was taking the train home with an astrophysicist colleague. Wich, who monitors animal populations, mentioned that he was looking for a way to identify animals and humans with thermal imagery. His colleague pointed out that the same algorithms used to look for and measure warm objects in space could likely be applied to drone footage. They struck upon the idea of using star-detection software to begin detecting wildlife.
The long-term project will start with scientific surveys of animal populations and then expand to allow the public to upload drone footage and run it through the detection software.
Wich predicts that drones—cheaper and less dangerous than planes or helicopters—will become a widely used conservation tool. “Their flexibility and high-resolution images are a huge advantage for data gathering,” he says. “I think we will have swarms of drones flying over forests.”
- Health care delivery, Rwanda. Medical centers in the hilly country can order emergency blood supplies by text message and receive them via drone within 30 minutes.
- Vulture monitoring, Mongolia. Drones watch the nests of the world’s largest vulture species to ensure that the population is healthy.
- Coral mapping, American Samoa. In 2013 a Stanford University student created a drone to map coral reefs off Ofu island to assess climate change’s impact.
- Peacekeeping, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations first deployed drones in a peacekeeping mission here in 2013 and has since used them in Mali and the Central African Republic.