Tech Innovation

8 surprising things you didn’t know a drone could do


From multi-million dollar Facebook UAVs (pictured above) to £1,000 DJI Phantom 3 Pro quadcopters, everybody is talking about drones.

We all know what these robotic aircraft can be used for today — surveillance and filming aerial shots; inspecting buildings; helping with search & rescue operations; even monitoring wildlife. In the future, once CAA regulations are relaxed, they will probably deliver our Amazon shopping, fly in our takeaway pizzas and follow us around recording HD selfies.

But drones can do much more. Did you know that…

1. Drones can fly themselves

Sure, drones can already use GPS technology to navigate from A to B at high altitudes. But what about flying low through a city, without human control and without crashing into any of the buildings?

Asctec drone with RealSense
This AscTec Firefly drone (left) features multiple RealSense cameras to give it a 360-degree field of vision (right) and enhanced depth perception.

Earlier this year, Intel demonstrated how a ASCTEC Firefly UAV equipped with depth-sensing RealSense 3D cameras could ‘see’ and map its surroundings in real-time. Using this environmental data in a collision-avoidance system, the drone could be programmed to fly itself through dense woodland.

2. Some drones can build bridges

The two drones in the amazing video below have been programmed to construct a rope bridge strong enough to hold the weight of a person. It’s the work of researchers at the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich and Gramazio Kohler Research.

3. Other drones will be gardeners

UK start-up Biocarbon Engineering wants to use drones to help plant a billion new trees. Instead of hand-planting seeds (which is slow and expensive), the Oxford-based company plans to use an aerial reforestation technique known as ‘seed bombing’ — firing pre-germinated, nutrient-rich seed pods into the ground. Using such a method, it should be possible to plant thousands of trees per day.

4. Larger drones could carry people

AirBuoyant describes its Vertipod Hex concept as an an “all-electric, heavy-lift, human-carry-capable Hexacopter” that can “accommodate payload/pilot weights of up to 300 lbs and the option to fly manned or unmanned as a heavy-lift drone.”

MA Hover Bike
The MA Hover Bike is essentially a huge drone that you can sit on.

It’s not the first drone-inspired vehicle designed for human flight. We’ve already covered the Flike on IQ and there are other similar projects, like the MA Hover Bike.

5. You can race drones

Not content with flying their quadcopters in lazy, looping circles, first person view (FPV) drone racing enthusiasts hack them for speed and hurtle them around courses at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour.

6. Drones can provide Internet access

While Google has a project to use balloons to deliver Internet connectivity to people in remote and rural areas, Facebook plans to use solar-powered drones.

Big drones. Drones with a wingspan to rival that of a Boeing 737, packed with enough batteries to stay airborne for three months at altitudes up to 90,000 feet.

The Aquila aircraft, as it’s known, was developed in the UK and is currently ready for flight testing.

7. Drones could replace fireworks

During his keynote speech at CES 2016, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich revealed Drone 100 — an outdoor flying drone light show, synced to the music played by a live orchestra. With 100 drones in the air, the spectacle set a Guinness World Record for the most UAVs airborne simultaneously.

“Now [drones] are getting new human-like senses, so they can see and react intelligently, in real-time to obstacles in their environment,” said Intel’s marketing director of perceptual computing Anil Nanduri. “This will open up new, creative ways for using UAVs.”

8. Drones have even been used to pull teeth

Yes. Really. Don’t try this at home.

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