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Pacifist drones

A look at the positive applications of drone technology

Drones. What comes to mind when you hear that word? For many, drones have become synonymous with death and evil Orwellian robots that ominously hover over the sky, like something out of a sci-fi novel. This is particularly true in the U.S., where Predators (weaponized drones that are being used by the CIA to target ‘militants’) have been responsible for the deaths of more than hundreds of civilians. As a result, media coverage of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has mainly focused on its application within a military context. While, the militarization of drones and their horrific repercussions are a reality, it’s not a comprehensive one.

The constant negative portrayal of drones in the media has shaped the public’s misconception of this fascinating and intricate technology. Due to their military application, a lack of good science communication, and tight regulations surrounding their commercialization in North America, drones are facing a huge public image problem.

The U.S. Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) a 2015 deadline to loosen its regulations and integrate drones into civilian airspace, which will allow for more commercial and domestic use of drones. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has projected that by 2025, integrating the commercial use of drones in the U.S. will have a large economic impact, reaching $82.1 billion dollars and creating 100,000 jobs.

Although there are problems that need to be faced with integrating drones into our society, it is hopefully a step in the right direction to eliminating skewed public perceptions. From the good to the bad to the downright silly, the possible applications of drones seem endless. Whether you believe in the use of drones in the military or not, it is crucial to understand the full extent of what they can do for society, starting with the research here at McGill, and the many different applications around the world.

Drones at McGill

It’s a bird, it’s plane… it’s a drone! The aptly-named David Bird, a professor of Wildlife Biology at McGill, has been studying birds of prey for the past 45 years. Bird is regarded as a leader in his field, being among the first biologists in North America to integrate UAVs into wildlife research and management.

He realized the possibility about eight years ago with a former ornithology student, while working on a project that investigated the possibility of a drone designed to look like a hawk to scare away falcons from a vineyard. Since then, and with the help of the Kenneth M Molson foundation, he has been able to successfully use drones in his other projects, such as understanding how birds respond to drones and wildlife population tracking.

Bird is currently looking at the potential use of drones equipped with noisemakers to scare away nuisance birds, like Canadian geese that attack crops and starling flocks that damage vineyards.

He is fast to point out that drones, in comparison to helicopters, improve data accuracy, are more cost-effective and time-efficient, and are less stressful to the wildlife they track. He specifically emphasizes the element of safety. “The number one source of mortality for bird wildlife experts is dying in a plane crash. UAVs eliminate this threat.”

His enthusiasm for the possibilities of drones has led him to create the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, which publishes four times per year online. Bird is a huge advocate for the potential application of drones in general, saying, “For the first time in my life as a scientist, I feel like I’m on the cusp of something great.”

Permits from Transport Canada are hard to come by, and have forced Bird to conduct some of his research outside the country. In fact, Bird proudly mentions that he is the first Canadian researcher to be granted permission to use a large fixed-winged UAV over a forest in Labrador, within a military-controlled area, to detect the signals of woodland caribou and their movement patterns. This is a huge feat, considering the strict drone regulations in Canada.

Although he is a firm believer in using drones, Bird approaches their use with caution and agrees with the strict regulations enforced by the FAA and Transport Canada. “At times you can have no control over [drones]. You can have flyaways where the computer goes haywire.”

The possibility of providing aid to millions of people around the world, with no access to healthcare, clean water, or even road infrastructure is a powerfully exciting future to think of.

He stresses that there is still a long way to go before the risks are eliminated, which is why he’s concerned about how readily available they are to amateurs. “Anyone can go into a hobby store and buy a helicopter with a camera on it.” The problem with accessibility, Bird points out, is if you’re not responsible when flying around an urban area, like downtown Montreal, it can lead to horrible crashes involving innocent civilians or interfering with private property.

In June, a drone being used to film a commercial in downtown Vancouver crashed into a building. Luckily, no one was injured and an investigation by Transport Canada resulted in no charges against the operator of the drone. However, the City of Vancouver did issue a temporary ban, which has since been lifted. There have also been several incidents of small drones being used to airdrop drugs into prisons in Quebec.

It’s “stupid actions” such as the aforementioned that Bird worries might make Transport Canada further tighten its regulations, as the FAA did in the U.S..
Another area Bird feels very strongly about is the misconception behind drones. “Public perception bothers me. […] Conjure up the word drones and people think of the U.S. killing people,” he says irritably.

Like many, Bird agrees that there is a severe lack of scientific communication when it comes to drones and believes that “it is the responsibility of scientists working with [drones] today that need to show they can be used for good and not evil.”

Advancing the science

Meyer Nahon, a professor of Mechanical Engineering, focuses his research on the underlying science of UAVs rather than the application. The goal of his group is to further develop technology so drones can become fully autonomous. This means a drone wouldn’t require direct control from one person, but rather a specific command (such as flying from Montreal to Toronto), which it can route themselves. Another project his lab is currently working on is landing a UAV on a moving platform.

Most of Nahon’s work with drones takes place indoors, where they are easily controlled and safe away from the public. With the spike of interest in civil drones, he sympathizes with regulatory bodies like Transport Canada who are under a great deal of pressure. He stresses that there is a high risk associated with flying drones over a populated area, as there is very little experience compared to other aerial vehicles.

Even with a large commercial push, Nahon is “personally skeptical we will see billions of little drones flying around our heads anytime soon.”

No stranger to protests, Nahon has had to face backlash for his own work on drone technology. Last year, Demilitarize McGill blockaded the Aerospace Mechatronics Lab, where Nahon is a researcher.

In response to whether he believes it’s the responsibility of scientists to communicate the misconceptions of drone technology, he states, “It’s not that we hide our heads in the sand; but rather because we are confident there are many positive (and non-military) reasons to want to do that.”

He adds, “This is what we are interested in, this is why we are in university. The application or the use of this technology is determined by the people that make use of it […] It would be like saying, well there shouldn’t be any research done on the internet because it’s being used by the military, but look where we are now, it’s analogous […] it’s a mistake to focus on the negative when there are so many benefits.”

Like Nahon, Professor Inna Sharf in Mechanical Engineering also focuses her research on autonomous UAV technology, so they can be applied successfully. Her interests lie with smaller rotary vehicles, including how to make them last longer and withstand elements, like the wind. Sharf is also currently looking at algorithms to allow UAVs to recover from collisions.

Sharf has come under scrutiny from campus activists, especially Demilitarize McGill, for the funding of her research. While Sharf has denied the military applications of her work, in the past, documents obtained by access to information (ATI) requests revealed that she received several contracts from Defence Research and Development Canada in Suffield, totalling more than $500,000.

Sharf encourages other researchers in her position to speak up when they get a chance, but at the end of the day she believes, “It is we as society, it is all of our responsibility to make sure how particular technology is used.”

Drones around the world

There are many applications of drones that have the ability to impact society in a positive way. However, many are put on hold until drone technology can develop, or until regulating bodies (such as the FAA or Transport Canada) loosen their restrictions on commercial drones. Here are a few.

Musical drones?

The Montreal-produced classical music video channel, noncerto, is currently enlisting the aid of a drone to capture its original footage. Wael Chanab, noncerto’s drone videographer, first proposed the idea while overhearing the director, Alexandra Oakley, discuss a particular shot she wanted for a classical music video. “I suggested that a drone could probably achieve it, and researched a few possibilities. noncerto decided to purchase a drone for classical music videos and offered me an internship for the summer with their non-profit organization operating the drone.”

Chanab says that noncerto’s drone has allowed for “interesting and unique perspectives of artists playing concerts in unusual and unique locations in Montreal” in addition to capturing “stunning angles and movement.”

One great reason for the use of drones, according to Chanab, is that it allows for an efficient, easy-to-use tool at the disposal of the video directors, and it’s also much more cost-friendly compared to other aerial vehicles.

Being one of the first organizations to shoot classical music videos with a drone, noncerto is definitely adding to the versatility and list of possibilities of this technology.

The age of farm drones

According to the AUVSI, agricultural applications of drones will account for $75.6 billion by 2025 in the U.S., making it by far the most dominant market. There is a huge demand from farmers with large acres of land, as drones are being created to assess the health of crops and livestock, increase yields, save money, and quickly detect infestation or drainage issues. One potential impact is the reduction of pesticides (and other chemicals). Since drones are able to quickly find infested areas, they can spot-spray a precise area rather than mass spraying unnecessary acres as they currently do, which would have great environmental benefits. Agricultural drones have been used in Japan for years, allowing farmers to tend to their land more quickly, effectively, and efficiently. Many now believe this is the time for agriculture in North America to adopt this technology.

Disaster relief and humanitarian aid

More and more non-profits and start-up companies have aimed to use drones for social good during times of disaster for communities who are in need of aid.
One start up company, Matternet, aims to accelerate the process of humanitarian responses with the use of drones to deliver medicines and other crucial supplies to remote areas. In 2012, Matternet conducted its first field trials in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They were able to successfully distribute medication to camps set up after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and deliver supplies and diagnostic kits from big healthcare centres to smaller, remote ones in the Dominican.

Even though the company has developed safety precautions for its drones, including shutting them down if hijacked, Matternet is still working on making them safer before considering humanitarian deployment.

More and more non-profits and start-up companies have aimed to use drones for social good during times of disaster for communities who are in need of aid.

Additionally, this year, Google also announced its plans to use autonomous drones to help deliver relief to disaster-stricken areas. Its program entitled “Project Wing” has been running test flights in Queensland, Australia, since the regulations on drones there are more laid back compared to North America.
The possibility of providing aid to millions of people around the world, with no access to healthcare, clean water, or even road infrastructure is a powerfully exciting future to think of.

Lights, camera, drones!

New and shiny technology: of course Hollywood wanted a bit of drone-loving. Although the film industry has been using drones in other countries where regulations are less stringent, the FAA has now given the green light for six television and movie production companies to film using drones on U.S. soil.

Knock knock… drone delivery!

Whether you find it cool or downright silly, millions of dollars are being invested to have drones deliver to your doorstep. Domino’s Pizza (yeah, you read that right), has tested the ‘DomiCopter,’ a pizza delivery drone that delivers to your home in ten minutes. Alas, it was just a clever marketing ad by the company, but who knows: maybe it will become a reality! It would give a whole new meaning to the term fast food.

What is real, however, are the millions Amazon is spending to develop drone technology so that its products can be delivered in thirty minutes after they are purchased.

Search and rescue

One of the first successful documented cases using a search and rescue drone occurred in Saskatchewan in May 2013. The RCMP were unable to find an injured victim of a car crash whose vehicle had rolled over in the middle of the night in a remote area. A ground search and an air ambulance were unable to find the victim. The RCMP launched a drone after receiving a call from the victim’s cellphone; equipped with heat-sensing technology, the drone was able to locate the victim. What could have potentially resulted in a fatality during the freezing night was mitigated by the use of a drone. The use of drones for search and rescue is becoming an increasingly popular tool.

Protecting wildlife

Drones are currently being used to monitor and protect wildlife by the U.S. government and other organizations around the world. One non-profit is using drones for orangutan conservation in Indonesia and Malaysia. These ‘conservation drones’ are able to track the distribution and resting spots of orangutans. The hope is that the information collected will be used to petition the government to protect national parks from developers interested in the palm trees for palm oil production.

While the drone industry continues to be mostly represented by the military complex, it is becoming clear that drones can offer significant non-lethal applications. Scientists need to strongly advocate for and shift to developing civilian applications. But ultimately, it is up to us as privileged students and citizens to ensure the proper use of this technology by holding our leaders accountable and voicing our dissent.