Drones for Good: 25 Inspiring Examples of Drones Doing Good around the World [Updated for 2020]
BY Alan Perlman22 October 2020
One of the things we hear all the time about the drone industry is how lucrative everyone predicts it will be (not to mention how lucrative it already is). Article after article talks about projections for the future, and how VC investors are pouring money into drone startups.
The industry also faces lingering concerns about privacy, with some still worried about having buzzing aerial nuisances flying over their homes.
But we all know that there’s a lot more to drones. Drones do lots of good in the world, and the ways they can be used for good seem to be growing every day.
And to illustrate that fact, here is a list of 25 ways that drones are being used for good right now.
1. Providing WiFi and Cell Service in Disaster Scenarios
The FAA has officially approved the use of drones to restore cell service in Puerto Rico, following the devastation brought about there by Hurricane Maria.
The drones used for these operations are called Flying COWs (Cell on Wings), and were created by AT&T to act like a flying cell tower. When operational, these drones are able to quickly restore voice, data, and internet service to those who have been without them following a huge disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake.
In the next few years, we hope to see more and more of these drones keeping us connected right after disasters, at times when we previously would have expected to lose coverage for weeks or even months.
Watch this video to learn more about how drones are helping restore connectivity in Puerto Rico:
2. Mapping for Sustainability
As drones become cheaper, they’re becoming a viable tool for countries with fewer resources to use for mapping projects.
The Zanzibar mapping initiative, featured in the video below, has the goal of creating a high resolution map of the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, covering an area of over 1400 square miles, by using low-cost drones instead of satellite images or manned planes.
These maps are not purely informational. Zanzibar Commission for Lands will use the maps for better planning, land tenure, and environmental monitoring, which means that drones are playing a vital role in helping to implement sustainable practices in Zanzibar.
3. Assistance Following Hurricanes and Storms
During the devastating hurricane season of 2017 drones came to the rescue in many different locales and scenarios, from helping in Houston after Hurricane Harvey to helping in Miami after Hurricane Irma.
Drones were used to identify the location of hurricane survivors that needed to be rescued, to assess damage, to evaluate routes toward saving those caught up in flood conditions, and to collect vital information on the status of places that would otherwise be impossible to reach.
During Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina last year, a drone helped locate a man trapped in his home during a flood so that authorities could rescue him.
4. Mapping and Preserving Archaeological Sites
As time passes, archaeological sites can become degraded, and even fall into danger of disappearing beyond recognition.
Drones are helping archaeologists to create detailed 3D maps of important sites, so that even if they do fade with time, an accurate replica will persist that can be studied and used as a resource for future generations.
Drone mapping provides a fast, accurate, and noninvasive way to document archeological sites, creating a historical record of a country’s cultural heritage and giving archaeologists a rich set of data and models to be used for further research.
In 2013 Benoit Duverneuil founded the research group Aerial Digital Archeology and Preservation, which aims to further the field of drones in archeology and train others to implement the latest techniques. Learn more about his work on the research group’s Facebook page.
5. Catching Poachers in the Act
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been hard at work trying to stop poachers on the open oceans, and they’ve been using drones to help them do it.
Check out the video below, which was a finalist for the 2017 InterDrone Film Festival, to see how conservation activists are using drones to nab poachers.
6. Helping with Forestry and Conservation
By helping to create detailed maps, drones can assist in detecting illegal logging operations, as well as tracking and monitoring overall tree count and the health of a forest.
Using NDVI imagery, areas of dry vegetation can be monitored, which can assist with forest fire prevention. Maps can also help identify dead trees, revealing whether a disease might be affecting the forest.
Because drones can capture so much data all at once, and because software to analyze that data is becoming more and more robust, drones are shaping up to be the perfect tool to help conservationists and forestry officials to track the overall health of a forest. Such a project would be incredibly time consuming on foot, not to mention much more complicated—imagine manually counting the number of diseased trees in an area, instead of having software automatically analyze an image shot by a drone and informing you.
7. Supporting Law Enforcement
Police officers are using drones to help assess damage following floods, fires, and other natural disasters; to create detailed orthomosaic maps of crime scenes, and even of places where a crime might be likely to happen so that they can use that knowledge to respond more quickly to potential threats; for accident reconstruction; and for fugitive apprehension, among others.
Below is a picture of Tom Agos of the Gurnee Police Department in Gurnee, IL, flying a drone to assess water damage in the town following a flood. Read our interview with Tom to learn more about his work with drones in Gurnee.
8. Finding and Safely Detonating Landmines
A 14 year old boy in India named Harshwardhan Zala made the news recently for inventing a drone that could detect and detonate landmines.
The drone comes equipped with infrared, an RGB sensor, and a thermal meter along with a 21-megapixel camera with a mechanical shutter that can take high-resolution pictures. It works by detecting landmines from a distance, and then, once the area has been cleared, dropping a small bomb to destroy the landmine safely.
9. Fighting Fires—Reconnaissance, Identifying Smoldering Hot Spots, and More
Drones help firefighters with their jobs in a number of ways.
Using aerial thermography, a drone can fly over the sight of a fire that is almost out to identify smoldering hot spots that might not be visible to the naked eye. Aerial thermography can also help to quickly find potential fire victims who need immediate medical attention in fires that are still smoldering.
10. Saving Lives in Search & Rescue Missions
Search & rescue scenarios are all about time. If someone is lost in the woods in harsh conditions, the chances of survival all come down to how long they’re out there before someone finds them.
In the future, every progressive SAR team will have a drone or access to a drone for a search.
-- Kamloops Search and Rescue, of Kamloops, British Columbia
In one story from Canada, a search and rescue team found a group of five snowboarders and skiers that had been missing for two days using UAVs with infrared cameras. In another, a 93-year-old woman was found in a dark field at night in just four minutes using aerial thermography.
11. Teaching—and Exciting—Students about STEM and Coding
DroneBlocks and DronePan are two programs that come with apps teachers can use to help students get involved in coding and generally interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields using drones.
Another program that helps students learn about drones remotely is DroneLegends, a hybrid learning program that uses drones to ignite an enthusiasm for STEAM subjects in elementary and middle school students.
By the way, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout out here to Marisa Vickery, Facilitator of Learning & Innovation for the Dripping Springs school district in Dripping Springs, Texas. Marisa reached out to tell us to add DroneBlocks to our list of The Top 100 Drone Companies to Watch, and she was absolutely right. Thanks Marisa!
12. Delivering Blood and Other Crucial Medical Supplies to Remote Areas
Every day throughout the world Zipline, Matternet, and other medical drone delivery companies are helping get crucial medical supplies to those in need.
More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Because of this, over 2.9 million children under age five die every year. And up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood.-- Zipline
13. Making More Food with Fewer Resources
Drone applications in agriculture are booming, and new ag-focused drone companies and products are being announced all the time.
UAVs allow farmers to collect more actionable data about their crops than has ever before been possible. Also, new data-focused platforms like RaptorMaps are helping to analyze and use the data gathered. RaptorMaps is an MIT-founded precision agriculture company that employs crop-mapping drones to better pinpoint crop damage, offering farmers 100% data coverage of their land.
Worldwide, about a third of all crops are lost. It’s easy to blame bugs, but really, a lack of information is destroying these plants.
-- Nikhil Vadhavka, CEO of RaptorMaps
By helping to analyze crop yields and providing key data on soil quality and other crucial factors, the ag sector of the drone industry holds a huge amount of promise. If we can get more food from fewer resources, everyone on the planet benefits.
14. Helping with Humanitarian Efforts
French drone company Parrot has committed itself to supporting the mission of Human Rights Watch (HRW) by providing drones, software, and technical help in its investigations into human rights abuses throughout the world.
The video below highlights HRW’s investigation of atrocities committed by ISIS in northern Syria, and was created using aerial data collected by Parrot’s ANAFI drone.
15. Predicting Flash Floods
Climate researchers in Juneau, Alaska have been using Wingtra’s WingtraOne to help track the fluctuations of water and ice levels in nearby Suicide Basin to better predict flash floods.
The work is part of an ongoing effort to improve flood tracking led by Gabriel Wolken, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Climate Adaptation Science Center. Wolken is collecting visual data by drone in order to track the rising and falling of the basin and the interactions of the basin’s changing levels with changes in the Mendenhall Glacier, with the overall goal of improving predictions about these floods.
16. Studying Volcanoes More Closely than Ever Before
Researchers from the Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Germany are using drones equipped with visual and thermal cameras to study the active Santa Maria volcano, located in Guatemala.
Capturing images of active volcanoes has been a challenge for volcanologists (scientists who study volcanoes) for a long time because they present incredibly dangerous, volatile areas where the ground could collapse beneath you or flaming projectiles could suddenly fly at you at any moment.
But drones provide a cost-effective solution for researchers—and one that continues to improve as drone technology evolves.
17. Fast-Tracking Accident Reconstruction
Drones are becoming a go-to technology for accident reconstruction, used by law enforcement, insurance companies, and lawyers trying to assess blame after a crash.
One of the biggest values in using a drone for accident reconstruction is that it significantly reduces the amount of time needed to collect a sufficient amount of data to map out the scene for an investigation, reducing the time needed to create a map of a car accident from 6-8 hours down to under 10 minutes.
And this time saved literally translates into lives saved, since data shows that the more time the road is blocked, the more likely it is that another accident will occur.
18. Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution in Rivers and Oceans
Ten of the biggest rivers in the world collectively contribute as much as 95% of the plastic found in the ocean.
Scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have been working on a massive global plastic pollution survey at sites around the world to better understand the problem so that they can work to find effective solutions.
And drones are providing key aerial data to help speed up the effort, providing researchers with key data on where and how rivers get polluted and helping them fast track their efforts to find a solution and remove plastic from the oceans.
Photo credit: United Nations Environment Program
19. Providing Insights in Coastal Protection and Preservation Efforts
Florida-based Taylor Engineering conducts civil engineering projects which include coastal restoration, coastal protection, flood management, water risk management, and dredging.
They use drones to monitor progress in their work with aerial stills and video, and to track the volume of large stockpiles of sand and other materials involved in their work using stockpile volumetry.
These efforts help preserve our coastlines from erosion, providing critical restoration to protect our frontline against huge weather events.
Photo credit: Taylor Engineering
20. NOAA’s Efforts to Protect the Ocean
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has significantly ramped up its use of drones for studying the ocean over the last few years.
In March of 2020, NOAA established an Unmanned Systems Operations Program, and in April of 2020, they published the results of an extensive survey of right whales conducted with the support of UAS. Later in 2020, NOAA shared the news of their use of autonomous marine drones to collect oceanic data on fish, seafloor, and weather.
As time passes, we’re sure to hear more and more about how drones are supporting NOAA’s efforts to protect the ocean.
Photo credit: NOAA
21. Drone Rescues
We covered the ways drones have helped with search and rescue efforts earlier above, as #10 on this list.
But DJI’s global drone rescue map is worth its own entry, since it includes not only instances in which drones have helped find missing people, but also cases where drones have brought supplies to people or provided aerial intelligence during fires and other emergency scenarios.
The map contains detailed information on over 400 drone rescues, and it’s well worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more about how drones are helping save lives throughout the world.
22. Finding Human Remains
Using drones equipped with infrared and other sensors, criminal forensic investigators have been experimenting with surveying huge areas of land to find anything that stands out, so they can pinpoint areas where search parties should concentrate their efforts.
In fact, the use of drones in criminal forensics has so much potential that the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a grant of $280,000 to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University (FACTS) in July of 2020 to help them use drones to locate human remains.
23. Making Home Inspections Safer
Using a drone to inspect a roof as part of an overall property inspection made to assess the value of real estate is another way drones are doing good in the world, by helping keep people out of harm’s way.
Without a drone, inspectors must use ladders and climb onto a roof to collect enough information to assess its condition. A drone removes the need for exposure to falling by allowing inspectors to get all the visual data they need remotely, without having to expose themselves to potential harm.
24. Helping Researchers Access the Inaccessible
New, innovative drone technology has been used by researchers to help them access places previously impossible to reach.
Take the mission Flyability helped scientists make in Greenland, where its Elios drone was used to fly deep into shafts in the ice to study the movement of the water underground so they could better understand the impact climate change is having on the ice sheet there.
In prior expeditions, researchers had attempted to climb to the bottom of some of the shafts but could only make it about 400 feet—less than halfway down—learn more about the mission in the video shown below.
25. Keeping People Safe from Ice Hazards
Canadian company NextGen Environment Research Inc. has been using senseFly’s eBee Plus to track hazards on the ice at Lake Winnipeg.
The goal of the project is to help prevent accidents during ice travel by collecting aerial data on its condition. This data is used to create maps and track changing conditions on the ice, which can help people make informed decisions about where it’s safe to travel over it—and where it isn’t.
Photo credit: senseFly