When people think of drones, the mind typically turns to one of two things: small, commercially available devices people fly themselves or the substantially bigger, substantially more dangerous drones used by militaries around the world.
But, as out sister paper in Ashland pointed out, there are more categories and far more ways drones are affecting people’s lives than those two categories would suggest.
The Ashland Daily Press’ article, which we reprinted Thursday, on the use of drones in Lake Superior is exactly the kind of thing that gets overlooked. Three of the contraptions are being used in Chequamegon Bay and other spots on the lake to evaluate water quality and the aquatic life hidden beneath the waves.
Two are pretty similar to the aerial drones people know. They’re on the lake’s surface and are controlled remotely, albeit from California rather than someone on the beach. The third? That’s a different story. It’s a torpedo-shaped drone that cruises below the surface. It’s autonomous while underwater. It gets instructions every two hours. That’s when it surfaces to send data back.
Over the course of the next month or so, the three drones should give scientists a good picture of the lake’s health, along with the fish population. That, in turn, will help policymakers. The hope in the long run is that drones can be deployed to get information that isn’t otherwise available, including about life under the winter ice.
You might have heard about aquatic drones before. They’ve done some pretty cool things. Last year one deployed into Hurricane Sam, capturing video and data from inside the Category 4 storm. Video from the drone showed conditions that made for great images, but would clearly put lives at risk if a crewed vessel attempted to do the same.
That mission showed two things. First, it demonstrated that a drone could indeed survive major hurricane conditions. Second it confirmed collection of data was possible in a way that had not been accessible before. We know there are gaps in our understanding of hurricanes. We don’t fully understand some sudden changes of direction or intensity. Better data could fill those holes, eventually saving lives.
Other drones have made autonomous ocean crossings, raising the possibility of long-duration missions that would be prohibitively expensive if humans had to be fed and sheltered on the ocean for so long. That raises options for mapping undersea features or following migration patterns that a human crew couldn’t handle.
Duration also plays a role in a space drone launched a couple years ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. The X-37B looks something like a miniature space shuttle. Little is known about the vehicle or its missions, which are classified, but it has made at least two flights that extended more than 700 days.
Then, of course, there’s Ingenuity. That’s the far more famous NASA drone that has been taking hops on Mars to help plan out future exploration and guide the Perseverance rover. It has made 29 flights, the first ever on another planet.
Drones have become familiar, but we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what they’re likely to accomplish in the years to come. We’re not in Star Wars or Blade Runner just yet, but it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see drones begin to show up in familiar settings in increasing number.
One equipped with thermal imaging could be invaluable in search and rescue missions, or identifying which parts of a burning building are actually on fire. A drone with capabilities similar to those in use on Lake Superior could well be used in water rescues.
We’re already seeing some used in sports. The USFL included use of small drones to record action from an angle viewers had never seen. While the league’s future may be subject to speculation, it seems a safe bet that we’ll see other sports at least consider an attempt to do the same thing.
Our relationship to this technology is about to change. Drones are, if not commonplace, certainly familiar. We become more acquainted with autonomous robotics every day. We may not yet have true artificial intelligence, but that is likely only a generation or so away.
The potential, both for immense benefit and for mischief, is real. And it will be fascinating to see it unfold.