Popular Uses for Drones

By Mark LaFay

How do most people use their drones? In the United States, the organization that controls all air traffic (private and commercial) is the FAA, which stands for the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the FAA to issue rules for legalizing the commercial usage of drones in the United States by September of 2015.

Currently, drone usage is protected under the FAA’s regulations pertaining to recreational and hobby uses as long as the drone is under 55 lbs. With no good way of monitoring or policing drone usage, however, there have been many private individuals, companies, farmers, small businesses, and so on that have begun using drones to help them get work done faster, smarter, and at lower risk and liabilities.

Remote sensing

Drones can carry sensing equipment to assist with any number of functions. Geological surveying, agriculture, archeology, and several other industries can benefit greatly from the myriad of sensors that can be packed into a drone. Here are just a few examples of how the agricultural industry, for example, uses aerial sensors:

  • Drones can use Lidar to measure the height of crops. Lidar is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating an object with a laser (near-infrared or UV) and then measuring what is reflected back.

  • Heat sensors detect the temperature of livestock, the presence of water, water temperature, and for surveillance and emergency response (if someone is injured in a remote field away from heavy equipment).

  • Multi-spectral instruments can count plants (crop density), check the health of plants, and even assess water quality.

  • Visual spectrum sensors make it possible to survey and map land.

  • Biological sensors can be used to take air quality readings and check for the presence of specific micro-organisms or organic compounds.

Commercial aerial surveillance

When you hear surveillance, chances are good that you think about security cameras designed to catch lawbreakers. Or possibly spying and monitoring of your personal movements and actions. Here are just a few ways that aerial surveillance can be helpful:

  • Farmers use drones to monitor livestock on vast spreads of land.

  • Fire departments can use drones to track and map wild fires.

  • Private companies can use drones to monitor their infrastructure such as pipelines, buildings, and so on.

  • Using drones to inspect power lines, towers, tall structures like chimneys and roofs would save businesses vast amounts of money and would reduce liability exposure from having humans in harm’s way.

Commercial and motion picture filmmaking

In 2014, the Motion Picture Association, backed by seven companies, petitioned the FAA to allow the use of drones in video and filmmaking. Drones dramatically reduce the cost associated with gathering action or aerial footage that up until now would require expensive equipment like booms and dollies or even helicopters or other manned aircraft.

In September of 2014, the FAA issued permits to six film studios for the use of drones in filmmaking. Drones are also being used to gather footage in sporting events because of their ability to maneuver into locations that cable-suspended cameras cannot reach. Most recently, drones were used to gather footage of the skiing and snowboarding events in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Oil, gas, and mineral exploration

With the help of specific electromagnetic sensors, drones can be used to gather geological information to help geophysicists identify and better approximate the location and presence of minerals, oil, and natural gas.

Disaster relief

The milieu of sensors that can be packed into a drone can be used to help locate and save life in the midst of natural disasters. Drones can be used to gather and deliver medical samples, supplies, and medicine to remote or otherwise unreachable areas in a disaster zone. Drones can also use infrared sensors to detect humans by their heat signature which is helpful in search and rescue scenarios.

Real estate and construction

Drones have made it possible to survey land and gather information at job sites. Realtors, developers, and builders have also begun using drones to gather video and imagery for home and building inspections and marketing materials to assist the selling process.

Recreational use

Needless to say, drones can be extremely useful devices for a plethora of applications ranging from agriculture to national security. However, you can’t forget that drones are also really fun to use. The miracle of flight is something that has fascinated man for millennia, so it’s no wonder that hobby flight enthusiasts have been tinkering with flying machines since the late 1800s.

The good news is that personal and hobby use of drones is perfectly legal in the United States. Recreational flying can be done anywhere but is best if done in open locations so that you can always see your aircraft. This is called lineofsight flying. Attaching a camera to your drone is also a lot of fun for gathering beautiful imagery and video of the world around you.

Until the emergence of drones, to take aerial photos or videos, you needed a really tall ladder or a friend with a helicopter/plane to be able to capture the footage. A word of caution, be careful of who, what, and where you take photos and video with your drone. Privacy is a major concern for many people.

Hobby groups and flying clubs exist all around the globe; plugging into a group is a great way to meet other people passionate about flying. It’s also a great way to learn how to fly, learn new techniques, service and maintain your aircraft, and more.