By Nina Strochlic, (abridged from NG, Jun 2017)
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 the consultancy firm PwC estimated that the global drone industry may be worth $127.3 billion.
Among the most eager to harness the power of remote-control 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.
Recently, 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 transform 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 thing 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.