7 commercial uses for drones

In this Jan. 16, 2014 image from video provided by Lakemaid Beer, a mini-drone lands with a 12-pack of beer for ice fishing anglers on Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs. Lakemaid president Jack Supple said he thought Amazon's package delivery plan would better be applied on a wide open frozen lake where ice anglers are manning their fishing holes in tiny shanties, but the Federal Aviation Administration heard him talking about his plans on the radio and grounded future deliveries. (AP Photo/Courtesy Lakemaid Beer)
In this Jan. 16, 2014 image from video provided by Lakemaid Beer, a mini-drone lands with a 12-pack of beer for ice fishing anglers on Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs. Lakemaid president Jack Supple said he thought Amazon's package delivery plan would better be applied on a wide open frozen lake where ice anglers are manning their fishing holes in tiny shanties, but the Federal Aviation Administration heard him talking about his plans on the radio and grounded future deliveries. (AP Photo/Courtesy Lakemaid Beer)
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Last week, a federal judge dismissed an FAA-imposed fine on a commercial drone user. While the agency still contends that drones in US airspace require “some level of FAA approval, some have interpreted the ruling as a precursor to a burgeoning commercial market for drones.

Drones, officially called unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), have captured the attention of savvy hobbyists and dialed-in investors alike. They maintain that drones have endless commercial applications, due to their relatively small size and ability to fly without an on-board pilot. However, the Federal Aviation Administration has been adamant about keeping non-military UAVs out of the skies. Some US citizens, already concerned about their right to privacy, worry that personal drones could be invasive.

Despite disapproval from critics and government agencies, some start-ups and existing companies are already poised to incorporate drones into business-as-usual. Here is just a smattering of possibilities for UAVs in the commercial world.

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1. Delivery:

Drones could allow businesses to deliver products to customers without having to send (or even hire) a driver. Most notably, Amazon announced a drone delivery initiative that resulted in an FAA standoff. If UAV-based food delivery takes off, the pizza delivery guy may someday be replaced by a pizza delivery drone – which begs the question, do we still have to tip? CBC reports:

Last year, a team of engineers in California launched the Burrito Bomber, a UAV that uses GPS coordinates to drop burritos by parachute. Continuing with the food theme, in June, Domino's Pizza U.K. put up a video ? which now has over one million views on YouTube ? showing an eight-rotor Domicopter carrying pizzas over the English countryside.

And as alcohol delivery becomes increasingly popular in some areas of the country, calls for drone-delivered beer have been met with moderate success. Apparently, the public is all about innovation when beer is involved.

2. Internet service:

Some were left puzzled when Facebook moved to acquire Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones. The potential sale could further Mark Zuckerburg’s Internet.org initiative, which aims to provide wireless internet to remote parts of the world. The solar-drones, which can reportedly stay airborne for five years, would act as movable wireless access points.

3. News:

Huge, expensive news helicopters might not be the standard for much longer. Drones equipped with cameras can fly lower and into smaller areas than larger manned aircraft. Instead of wide aerial shots of the freeway in a high-speed chase, viewers could one day get a look into the driver’s side window of a speeding car on the local news. The early stages of this trend are already in effect – Brian Wilson, 45, took drone footage showing the aftermath of an explosion in Harlem this week, then released it to news outlets.

4. Photography:

Commercial photography has a lot to gain from legal UAVs. Real estate agents could contract a drone-savvy photographer to take aerial shots of a property, and festival organizers could conduct accurate headcounts using overhead photos. After the FAA fine dismissal, an opportunistic Maryland couple launched Elevated Element, which offers drone-based photo services for businesses and individuals, Technical.ly reports.

5. Agriculture:

Although farming isn’t usually associated with cutting-edge technology, agricultural industry could reap the benefits of drones. Large-scale farmers might utilize aerial views from UAVs to monitor crop growth. Idaho farmer Robert Blair did just that, according to the Huffington Post.

6. Population growth:

Similarly, high-flying drones could be used to survey and document wildlife. CBC News reported:

David Bird, a professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, uses a UAV to count birds and polar bears. The electric-powered aircraft is so quiet that "you can fly it over a bird colony and the birds won't even know it's there," he said.

7. Public service:

Drone-aided search and rescue missions have been adopted by law enforcement across the country. Without pilots, aircraft like drones can survey and act in dangerous situations. Still, privacy watchdog groups like Citizens Education Project are leery of commercial drone use, according to the Seattle Times.

What other commercial uses could drones have? Should we use them? Discuss below.

Reach me at joseph.dussault@globe.com. Follow me @josephdussault