What Do Candy, Whale Snot, and the IoT Have in Common?

The history of drones, or unmanned aerials vehicles (UAVs), links all the way back to 1849, when an Austrian balloon carried explosives for an attack on ground targets in Venice, Italy.

Now, it’s nearly 170 years later, and drones are still highly active for military purposes. However, the nature of the drone technology – which enables UAVs to fly into challenging environments, carry all sorts of payloads, and be reprogrammed mid-mission – is taking them well beyond the battlefield into some amazing application areas. Drones can now aid in disaster relief, improve traffic management and law enforcement, and even deliver pizza, to name only a few of the wide array of imaginative uses in play today.

One of the key benefits of drones is that they can often do things faster and better than humans and accomplish tasks that are often physically impossible or just not feasible for everyday people. For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering using drones to deliver peanut butter-coated M&Ms mixed with vaccinations in an effort to save black-footed ferrets that live in the Great Plains. These animals, which are considered one of North America’s rarest species, are now susceptible to a devastating disease. However, drones – and candy-coated medicine – may just save the day, as the UAVs can deliver treatment 50 times faster than human intervention could.

Drones are also used – believe it or not – to collect whale snot. That’s right…whale snot, or what is more commonly known as whale blow. The drones, which of course are called snot bots, will help scientists from the Ocean Alliance in partnership with Olin College of Engineering discern the health of the whales across the globe. The researchers will use DNA from the snot to see what kinds of toxins, viruses, and bacteria are in the whales. Snot bots are currently aiding in the studying of whales in Alaska, Patagonia, and the Sea of Cortez.

Now, add on the Internet of Things – with real-time sensors, connectivity, and data collection capabilities – and a whole new realm of possibilities opens up for solving previously challenging problems in unique ways. With hyperspectral, light detection, and surveillance sensors, along with accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers, drones can now sense and report back on almost anything, providing intelligence and insights never before possible.

Take the recent Hurricane Hermine, for instance, which swept up the eastern coast of the United States in late summer. The U.S. government used one of its Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft drones to provide insights into the storm and its movements. The drone fed pictures and data back to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Flying above the storm at 60,000 feet, the drone looked down through Hermine and used sensors to provide measurements on wind speed and air pressure. In a concurrent storm in the Atlantic Ocean, another drone in the government’s fleet flew into Gaston, which was then considered a tropical storm. It dropped more than 80 instruments into the storm, which detected hurricane force winds and resulted in upgrading Gaston from a tropical storm to a hurricane.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is using IoT drone technology to help achieve his goal of bringing Internet access to the 4 million people on the planet that are not online today. His company is working on a solar-powered drone that can fly miles above the earth – again at that 60,000 feet mark or above – to provide fast Internet connections to people in remote 60-mile areas. With laser-beam technology, the Aquilla drone would transmit a signal to antennas in small towers and dishes on the ground, which will then turn the signals into Wi-Fi or 4G networks.

The plan is for Aquilla to fly above the earth for up to three months, a feat that would, in Zuckerberg’s words, “break the record for the longest unmanned aircraft flight.” Although there was an initial test flight of a full scale model in June 2016 that lasted more than an hour and a half, the engineering team is working on making it lighter and faster with more efficient power and payloads. Read more about the fascinating challenges the team is facing here.

Drones are soaring to new heights in other areas too, such as art and entertainment. Intel wanted to do something that no one else has done with drones, so the company created a light show near Hamburg, Germany with 100 drones that were synchronized with a live orchestra. And up at McGill University’s School of Computer Science in Toronto, a professor and his team programmed small drones to paint pop art-style wall murals of famous computer scientists.

With seemingly endless possibilities, the question is where will drones go next?