Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that in recent years have gained somewhat negative popular attention due to their use in US military campaigns in Asia. The initial adoption of this technology, however, is not as recent as one may think, dating back to the time period between the great wars (1918-1939), when the Kettering Bug was deployed, a weapon that basically consisted of a missile attached to the body of an airplane, still devoid of remote control.
With a series of enhancements permitted by technical progress, drones were deployed in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur wars, already featuring remote control, but still acting on an experimental basis. It was in the Lebanon War, in 1982, that their use effectively began to consolidate, taking on reconnaissance duty and allowing Israelis to have a precise notion of the origin of the Lebanese land-air missiles, which led to the reduction of deaths of their pilots to zero.
According to data compiled by BBC in 2012 and confirmed by Wired magazine in 2014, about 1 in 3 US warplanes were already operating without need of a pilot, proving their army's commitment to this technology. With the constant cheapening of parts and processes, non-military actors began to look at such equipment as potential vectors for innovation, which raises the question of whether drones could transcend the realm of war and find legitimate uses in civil society.
One sector in which this type of vehicle could take center stage in the near future is delivery: in the case of light packages, drones allow for transportation that avoids urban traffic and eliminates many of the risks associated with streets and roads. At the beginning, the activity would certainly be limited to specific areas, but it is plausible to consider the expansion of this type of service to larger areas as the success of smaller actions is confirmed.
Amazon is in an advanced stage to kickstart its Prime Air program, which intends to make use of drones to deliver goods to customers within 30 minutes. The service will initially be offered in the US, UK and Israeli territories, and the company is currently awaiting regulations from those countries to determine how and on what scale it can operate. To cite a more unusual example, the Domino's brand has already made successful pizza delivery tests with drones.
Addendum to the 2018 revision: In December 2016, Amazon made the first delivery through Prime Air on a 13-minute flight from one of its distribution centers to a client's home in the city of Cambridge, England. The drones being tested were configured to fly below an altitude of 120 meters and can carry packets just over 2 kilograms. It is notable that the course chosen for the test is almost rural, categorizing a difficulty much smaller than that of an urban environment. Still, it is a substantial breakthrough in the area.
Another area in which these vehicles can take on a larger role quickly is in the response to natural disasters. There are already ongoing studies regarding their use in forest firefighting. Given fire's highly unpredictable nature, fire departments often lose time, resources, and risk death due to a lack of real-time information. Helicopters currently capable of taking infrared pictures of large regions are considered expensive to operate, so they are deployed with large intervals, circulating once or twice a day. With drones, the trips could be constant and would cover large tracts of land. They could also be used as Internet routers, enabling consistent access by firefighters on duty, increasing the efficiency and security of their actions.
Addendum to the 2018 revision: Advances in such projects are steady, and have been used experimentally by teams across the world to improve the fight against forest fires. Scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå have tested the Freya drone in order to detect hotspots through the smoke, with a predicted uptime of 1 hour 40 minutes and the abiliy to cover 450 acres in one go. It is very likely that this technology will become a standard in the coming decade.
We cannot, however, rule out harmful use of such equipment. As the author Tom Standage would say, whenever a new technology comes along, it is always accompanied by ways to make deleterious use of it. There have been reports of drug trafficking performed with drones, as well as espionage, and governments fear its use for the transport of explosives in terrorist attacks. In all such cases, the work of criminals is facilitated thanks to the reduced risk to their personal safety, with the risk being passed primarily to the drone.
There are also problems of another nature. If traffic is moved from the terrestrial space to the aerial one, traffic would soon begin to accumulate, and there would be competition for this space in the great urban centers. This concern is especially valid considering that it has not been proven so far that vehicles have the ability to ultimately sacrifice themselves safely and not cause accidents involving persons or buildings, respecting the fundamental principle of the privileging of living beings to the detriment of products.
Removing the immediate human element from an activity that does not require formal education, such as a cargo transport drivers, would result in unemployment for a vulnerable demography. In order for the transition to take place in a socially appropriate way, mass training of these people would be required so that they could participate in some stage of the drone production and operation chain, a costly proposition that would not find sympathy in companies if they were not strongly pressured by governments and unions.
At the moment we cannot accurately predict the long-term effects of the use of these vehicles. If, on the one hand, we can envisage a future in which drones will coexist in harmony with everyday life, performing useful or dangerous tasks and improving quality of life for all. On the other hand it is also easy to imagine its use by miscreants, criminals and governments with intentions of repression and control of its population.
Most likely, the future holds space for both scenarios to unfold simultaneously, as it usually happens with all advances that break paradigms. New possibilities will come coupled with predictable and unpredictable risks, making it important for us to pay attention to the regulation and use of this technology. Only by accompanying developments and having a clear idea of what drones are being used for will we be able to intervene in order to make sure their participation in society is as beneficial as possible.