Growing up, I had a love-hate relationship with radio-controlled (RC) airplanes. They were fun to operate but could be difficult to control.

Today’s unmanned aircraft systems are different, and having flown drones recreationally, I’ve found they’re so smart and easy to control that some of the “hope we don’t crash” thrill is gone. That said, they’re also much faster than anything from my old RC days and can be programmed to accomplish a slew of important jobs, such as keeping the public safe.

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In fact, drones are poised to radically improve many public safety applications, from fire departments using drones with sensors to locate people trapped by fire, to rescue teams sending drones to locate lost hikers in our vast national parks — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Drones themselves are already highly sophisticated and largely commodity technologies. What makes a drone application special are the sensors, software, flight services and data analytics that users bring to bear.

A Growth Industry

As part of its overall forecast of aerospace trends, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which requires commercial, nonhobby drones to be registered with the agency, expects use of commercial drones to triple by 2023, growing at a far greater rate than previously projected. The FAA says that as commercial drones “become operationally more efficient and safe, battery life expands and integration continues, new business models will begin to develop.”

Recently, for example, a pest control company under contract to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration worked with developers on a unique prototype for a public safety drone application. The company’s job was to help the FDA avoid contamination by birds at several of its food inspection facilities. Before drones, workers would continually pressure-wash buildings and parking lots to clean them of bird droppings, at a cost of about $200,000 per facility, per year — and the birds would keep coming back.

Today, drones do the work of scaring off the most troublesome bird species (geese, by the way). When birds trip strategically located sensors at an FDA inspection facility, a 10-inch drone takes flight, detects their location, locks on with digital crosshairs and identifies the type of bird. If it’s on a pursuit list (such as a Canada goose, for instance, but not a bald eagle), the drone performs aggressive maneuvers and can emit light or sound to drive the birds away. Over time, the drones can change the behavior of flocks — a humane, cost-effective solution to a vexing public health challenge. And the drones can learn as they work, improving their performance: Developers designed the system so the drones could reach back over a wireless network to check what they were “seeing” against a database of bird species.

Drones on Their Own

Currently, under FAA regulations, commercial drones must be operated by trained pilots. But as drone technology and its application wind their way through public policymaking, an even more compelling future takes shape: that of autonomous drones. Imagine the public safety applications if drones could sense and function on their own; how much more quickly they could respond to emergencies, or how much more remotely they could fly to gather information and detect situations.

Of course, there are concerns over drone autonomy that will need to be addressed. How might law enforcement use drones to respond to crime, and monitor to prevent it? How can drones safely engage alleged criminals while protecting citizens’ rights and safety? How will information collected via drones be safeguarded? Public officials and thought leaders continue to work through such issues, because it’s in our interest that they do. Barring malfunction, misuse or malfeasance, drones do the jobs they’re programmed to, and they often do them better, more precisely and more efficiently than people.

As much as drones represent an emerging technology, technologists are unlikely to be the ultimate drivers of innovation. Traditional IT departments aren’t the biggest users of drones; scientists are, along with entrepreneurs, business managers, first responders, even farmers — professionals closest to the use cases where drones factor in. Those tasked with keeping the public safe are also among the most creative users of drone technology.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days of RC planes.

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