What do avalanches, mudslides, endangered birds, and sick cows have in common? They’re all currently being monitored by drones.
Small, unmanned aircraft are used for routine tasks, like inspecting bridges and roads. With high-tech cameras and thermal technology, drones can detect tiny cracks and identify potential potholes before they’re visible to the human eye—and before they cause big problems.
In Utah, drones survey from the sky as workers set off planned avalanches to reduce dangerous snow buildup. Experts can watch close-up in real time, says Jared Esselman, director of aeronautics at the state Department of Transportation. Drones measure snow and other elements of Utah’s rugged terrain to help keep avalanches from blocking roads or other structures. “We can predict not only snow slides, but mudslides and water runoff as the snow melts,” Esselman says. “Drones are a perfect tool for any job that is dangerous or dirty.”
In North Carolina, drones are finding the nests of endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, says Basil Yap. Yap is the unmanned aerial systems program manager at the state’s transportation department.
People used to fan out in helicopters or all-terrain vehicles to check for evidence of the protected birds before building new projects. Yap says the drones can do the job quicker with less disruption.
Kansas workers use drones to create farming programs and monitor cattle heat signatures. Changes in a cow’s temperature can signal fever. Drone tech could help prevent illness from spreading through a herd.
Government agencies aren’t the only ones using drones. Hobbyists, marketers, and realtors have gone drone-crazy too. Thinking of buying property? Check it out via drone. Want a cool shot of a car, beverage, or sports shoe? Fly a drone over it. Or just zoom it around your neighborhood. Experts suggest that there are currently almost two million drones filling U.S. skies.
But after years of debate, the Federal Aviation Administration is still figuring out how to manage the remote-controlled pilotless aircraft.
Government agencies from transportation to agriculture have rapidly adopted drone technology. All 50 U.S. states use drones in some way, and 36 have certified drone pilots on staff.
Jim Tymon is the executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He cites two reasons for the drone deluge: 1) They’ve gotten less expensive; 2) Uses for drones have multiplied.
As drones become ever more popular and prevalent, states must learn to regulate a potential flood of drone traffic. Or—despite all the good work drones can do—skies could be darkened by a drone plague.