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Demystifying drones, for they are here to stay

Bernd Debusmann Jr./Dubai
Filed on February 9, 2016 | Last updated on February 9, 2016 at 06.36 am

The BuilDrone, which detects leaks in oil or gas pipelines, bagged Dh1 million cash prize in Drones for Good Award.
(Photo by Neeraj Murali)

The team behind Loon Copter, a 3-in-1 drone that can fly, float or dive, receives $1 million cash prize from Shaikh Mohammed.
(Photo by Neeraj Murali)

Lauren Fletcher’s Planting Drone can plant more than 36,000 trees in a single day.
(Fiel photo)

The ReefRover drone allows researchers to better understand and protect the UAE’s coral reef systems.
(File photo)

Drones are already being used in UAE for surveillance, environmental protection and education.

When one hears the word 'drone', one of two images are likely to come to mind. In the first, a missile-equipped, unmanned military vehicle might be quietly stalking the skies of the world's war zones, ready to strike at an unknowing target thousands of miles below. In the second, one might envision youngsters playing with a tiny toy drone, the likes of which can be purchased for as little as Dh250 at hobby shops throughout the UAE.

Drones, however, are here to stay, and are already being put to innovative uses across a wide variety of fields. In Dubai alone, drones have already been put to use detecting violations at labour sites, delivering official documents and safeguarding the creek.The dizzying array of potential drone applications is perhaps best exemplified by the UAE Drones For Good Awards, which wrapped up on Saturday. Among the 20 semi-finalists were drones to inspect solar panels, rescue stranded explorers, map nuclear radiation, support blind athletes, check infestations in date plantations and look for defects in passenger aircraft.Drones are clearly here to stay. ABI Research - a tech market intelligence company - predicts that the global market for drones will hit $8.4 billion by 2018, with users ranging from militaries to media organisations and farmers.

What other uses might we see in the future?

Environmental

Among the most common uses of drones in the future will be scientific research and environmental protection missions. In 2015, the UAE's Ministry of Environment and Water, for example, began using drones to look for environmental violations at quarry sites.

A good example of this use is the ReefRover drone, designed by a team of students from NYU-Abu Dhabi.

Although not a drone in the traditional sense - it swims rather than flies - Chief Engineer Daniel Carelli noted that the technology will allow researchers to better understand and protect the UAE's coral reef systems."The ReefRover project is about enabling citizen scientists to take scientific-grade data for marine biology research," he said. "They have very specific methods, so what this does is swims along the bottom to get pictures that can later be stitched together to make maps of the coral reefs, so that marine biologists can actually study them."Internationally, experts predict that drones have enormous potential to combat environmental change.

The "planting drone" designed by UK-based BioCarbon Engineering is able to plant 36,000 trees a day - meaning that 50 drones, operated by teams of two people each, could potentially plant a billion trees a year to combat deforestation.

Education

Drones are being increasingly used in classrooms to enhance student's understanding of a variety of topics, such as robotics, physics and engineering.

Among the chief proponents of educational drones in the UAE are the FlyLab team, who have designed a drone specifically built to enhance the classroom experience.

"Education is one of the most critical and important things on the UAE's agenda today. His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, himself has said he wants to pass on new skills to students, like technology and innovation," FlyLab team member Ibrahim Elbadawi told Khaleej Times. "We focused on using a drone to re-design the way subjects are taught at schools."

"We can go to a classroom, equip the drone with the right tools, then do the experiment that they themselves want to do. They might check pollution, or might want to film an aerial video of Dubai, or detect some animals. It's all up to them," he added.

Search and Rescue

One of the main benefits of drones is that they can be rapidly deployed at the fraction of the cost of using a much larger, fuel-consuming, manned helicopter. In emergency situations, a drone is able to fly lower and enter difficult-to-reach areas that would be impossible using traditional means.

In April and May 2015, drones were put to the test in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal.

Within days of the earthquake, the UAE Ministry of the Interior's Search and Rescue Team was using drones to check the integrity of damaged buildings. In doing so, the UAE became the first country in the world to successfully use drones in a humanitarian mission.

At the time, Search and Rescue Team commander Lt. Colonel Mohammed Abdul Jalil Al Ansari explained that drones can provide a wide overview of a site and help rescuers determine any dangerous areas, as well as possible entrances and exits.

Winning Drones

Winning National Category Drone: The "BuilDrone" is designed to fly along oil or gas pipelines and automatically detect leaks. Once a leak is detected, a mechanism deposits foam to plug the leak. "Usually leaks are repaired manually. Humans will go there, the facility needs to be shut down and it takes time. It can be very dangerous for humans and very costly and it's labour, intense and complex," BuilDrone team advisor Dr Mirko Kovac told Khaleej Times. "What we offer is a solution. A drone can go to the site, inspect where the leak is, inspect the damage, and then repair it on-site without any human intervention."

Winning International Category Drone: The "Loon Copter" is designed as a 3-in-1 drone that can fly, operate on the service of the water, or dive underneath like a remote-controlled submarine - making it useful for a variety of potential missions. "It's a platform. Some of the applications that people have approached us with are monitoring of oil spills, so you can see the oil spill with a birds eye view from the top and then can go down and look at the pollution as a function of depth, or look for the source," said Osamah Rawashdeh, the project leader of the Loon Copter team from Oakland University in the US. "It can also be used for search and rescue, inspection of bridges, or to see approaching whales or sharks and carry shark deter-rents. People are still coming up with ideas. It's an enabling technology.

-bernd@khaleejtimes.com


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