We all know drones can deliver death on the battlefield, but might they also soon be delivering presents to your door? Amazon.com is counting on it, thanks to the online retail giant's no-longer-secret "Octocopter" package delivery project.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on CBS television Sunday, revealing to viewers of 60 Minutes that his company is testing drones that could deliver packages in as little as half an hour after an online purchase. With the help of buckets, the drones are designed to handle loads of up to five pounds, which account for about 86 percent of Amazon deliveries.
"It will work, and it will happen, and it's gonna be a lot of fun," Bezos said of the company's so-called Prime Air project, while predicting the drones will take to the skies within four or five years.
Technical, safety, and logistical hurdles aside, such a scheme would actually be illegal in the U.S. today without the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has tightly restricted the private use of drones.
Ben Gielow, a spokesperson for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Amazon's exciting proposal showed the promise of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) but, at least in the very near term, the FAA will likely allow such aircraft to fly only within the operator's line of sight.
"It's probably unlikely that the FAA will soon allow package delivery miles away from where the pilot can see the vehicle," he said. "But that's a regulatory issue, not a technical issue. So I don't think it's too inconceivable to think that within the next five or certainly ten years that these kinds of uses will be commonplace."
(Read the FAA's recently released five-year roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.)
The field may be advanced by high-profile projects like the Octocopter. "I think it helps to explain to the public how this technology could benefit them," Gielow said. "Because all commercial use is restricted in the U.S., the public is much more familiar with the military uses of the bigger, expensive vehicles and may not realize all the ways these types of smaller vehicles may be used to help them."
While UAS technology is best known for military and intelligence applications like aerial surveillance and targeted assassinations, plenty of surprising civilian uses have already emerged.
Today, only government agencies, some public universities, and a handful of private companies hold the few hundred FAA permits to fly private drones. But the Federal Aviation Administration is set to further open skies to commercial drones by 2015 and expects to see perhaps 7,500 in the air by 2020—most of which will likely be small machines resembling model airplanes.
What will all those drones be doing? Here are five civilian areas in which they've already excelled:
1. Hurricane Hunting
Drones can charge into the heart of a storm without risking human life and limb. That's one reason NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Northrop Grumman teamed up on a three-year, $30-million experiment to use long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to spy on storms as they evolve.
The program's Global Hawk drones can stay aloft for 30 hours and fly 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) with their 116-foot (35-meter) wingspans. That lets them reach and stay in stormy areas that manned planes can't, performing valuable surveillance.
Scott Braun, director of NASA's Global Hawk mission, used this analogy in an interview with National Geographic last year: "If you drove by a drug dealer's house, you wouldn't catch him; but if you stood there all day, you might."
Braun and team have tapped unmanned air power to track tropical storm data through a storm's long evolution, in hopes of improving prediction powers. "If we can improve forecasts," Braun said, "we can save money and lives."
A team at the University of Florida, meanwhile, is tackling the same task with a different method, employing a swarm of six-inch-long drones that are launched with a laptop, use little power, and can be carried by wind water current—even underwater—to ride through a massive storm by the hundreds, collecting data.
Their reports on temperature, pressure, humidity, and location could help scientists understand the forces of wind and water inside hurricanes by going with the flow the way humans never could.
"Our vehicles don't fight the hurricane; we use the hurricane to take us places," said the University of Florida's Kamran Mohseni, who invented the little drones. (Related: "Tiniest Drone Takes Off, Sort Of.")
2. 3-D Mapping
Small, lightweight drones may look like simple model airplanes, but they can survey landscapes with thousands of digital images that can be stitched together into 3-D maps. Military and other government satellites produce similar maps, but emerging UAV technology can put that capability in the hands of small companies and individuals, to be customized and used for a seemingly endless variety of applications.
"You can just push a button or launch them by hand to see them fly, and you don't need a remote anymore—they are guided by GPS and are inherently safe," Olivier Küng, co-founder of Switzerland software company Pix4D, said in a May TEDx talk in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Pix4D's software creates 3-D maps from drone images. Küng told the TEDx crowd that such technology has already been widely applied—for Haitian relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy, by farmers seeking to manage far-flung crops and fields, by mining companies monitoring changes to open pit mines, and by festivals to monitor crowd size for security reasons, among other uses.
Other applications will be developed when drone technology becomes widely available, Küng predicted. "The real question," he said in Lausanne, is "if you had these flying machines, this powerful software, and these thousands of eyes, what would you do with it?"
3. Protecting Wildlife
The U.S. government already uses drones to protect its lands and the species that inhabit them.
"The Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Geological Service use UAVs, and by and large they use military surplus stuff, like the small Ravens, to monitor wildlife populations or map roads and wetlands for land management purposes," said AUVSI's Gielow in June. "It's going to revolutionize how they go about this kind of work."
That revolution is already well under way. In Colorado, the U.S. Geological Survey has mounted a thermal imaging camera on a drone to count sandhill cranes when they are settled in on the ground for the night. Their 4.5-pound AeroVironment Raven was developed for military use almost a decade ago.
Though newer technology has replaced the Raven on the battlefield, it's still considered a cutting-edge tool in the world of wildlife conservation.
An Orangutan Conservancy effort that shows aerial surveys can identify the animals' distribution and density in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is key because ground-based efforts are slow and costly in the thick forests that orangutans favor.
Serge Wich, a primate biologist, launched several drones in northern Sumatra last month with his nonprofit group Conservation Drones, in an attempt to map the nesting spots that orangutans make at night. The images will be used to help NGOs in the area petition the government to protect national park land from being opened to developers interested in farming palm trees to produce palm oil.
The only way to get better detail is on foot, Wich said, which can be time-consuming, expensive, and often inconclusive. Flying even primitive drones—such as model airplanes built primarily for hobbyists—can drastically cut the cost of such conservation work.
For roughly $10,000, a conservation group can produce its own maps in several hours, rather than months. It could also update the imagery more frequently for more accurate data on where animals are moving. The maps, for their part, can provide about 30 times more detail than ones from satellite programs like Google Earth.
The unmanned craft can also chart land use changes like deforestation, which is threatening an untold number of species.
Drones also lend punch in the fight against poaching. With funding from Google, the conservation giant WWF plans to launch surveillance drones this year in skies over Africa, where poaching is driving iconic species like rhinos toward extinction and is fueling a massive illegal trade in wildlife items like horns and ivory.
The vehicles could keep some animals safe and help humans as well, allowing rangers to stay out of the line of fire and helping stabilize areas where criminal gangs of poachers have become a national security concern. WWF has also tested their Conservation Drones in Nepal's Chitwan National Park.
4. Down on the Farm
It's not quite turning swords into plowshares, but UAVs pioneered by the military are finding a home down in farmers' fields.
"Agriculture, far and away, is going to be the dominant market for UAV operations," Gielow explained in June. "In Japan they've been flying the Yamaha RMAX for 20 years ... A lot of the farmland there is on steep hillsides, and those vehicles can treat an acre in five minutes that's very difficult or even impossible to do with a tractor."
The precision agriculture movement uses technology to monitor fields, increasing yields and saving money. Gielow noted that precision applications of pesticides, water, or fertilizers, which drones can help by identifying exactly where such resources are needed and delivering them there, is better for the environment and for a farmer's bottom line.
Drone cameras that spot where nitrogen levels are low, meanwhile, or watch the growth of a specific field section, can also help farmers. Drones with infrared light cameras can reveal plant health by reflecting how efficient photosynthesis is in various plants.
"You can program a UAV route and it will take pictures at the exact same spot for as long as you'd like so you can make a great comparative growth analysis, even down to an individual plant," Gielow said. (Related: "The Drones Come Home.")
5. Search and Rescue
An injured victim of an automobile accident in Saskatchewan, Canada, in May 2013 may have been the first person to have his life saved by a search-and-rescue drone.
When Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded to a late-night rollover in a remote location, they found that the disoriented driver had wandered off. A ground search and an air ambulance helicopter with night-vision gear failed to find him.
But after a cell phone call from the injured victim gave a hint to his whereabouts, a Dragan Flyer X4-ES drone with heat-sensing equipment, launched by the Mounties, found the victim before a potentially fatal night outdoors in subfreezing temperatures.
"That's the first known rescue that an unmanned aircraft has made, that I'm aware of," Gielow said at the time.
It's not likely to be the last. SAR missions are time-consuming, expensive, and often dangerous for the people involved. The use of well-equipped drones is increasing for SAR and could soon become a standard way to cover large areas of inaccessible terrain, even at night.
Daniel Stone contributed to this story.