Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are aircrafts that have no pilots onboard.  They are able to fly independently, using on-board computers, or be remotely piloted.  Drones have been in use with the U.S. military since 1959.  Its original function was to gain reconnaissance over hostile territory, without the threat of losing pilots.  Since that time, UAV use has become widely expanded, having uses in hurricane hunting, protecting, tracking and conservation of wildlife, 3D mapping, search and rescue and farming, among others.  Their use has become increasingly valuable with the availability of GPS and real-time video.

Scientific uses for drones can get information that humans are unable to get, or cause safety risks to get.  For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employed the Coyote drone in a hurricane hunter role.  Data at or near real-time is collected in areas that were previously unreachable by manned hurricane hunters – near the ocean’s surface. This data is then sent to the National Hurricane Center for analysis.  Using drones in this manner not only cuts down on risk of danger to humans, but it also helps to give scientists more data with which to better understand and forecast hurricanes.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are also proving to be a powerful tool in the world of wildlife conservation.  In much the same way as hurricane hunters use drones, conservationists are able to gain data while remaining at a safe distance.  They are able to monitor animal distribution and density numbers without the time-consuming and costly ground trek that sometimes includes thick forests or other terrain that can be challenging for the mission. Monitoring animals’ habitats through drone usage, conservationists are able to identify potential threats, such as deforestation.  Scientists are able to observe general health conditions of animals, such as pregnancy, reproductive levels or injury, from afar. In the Pacific Ocean, scientists are collecting DNA, hormones, and nutrition information from whales using drones.  The method of collection from the “blows” of whales gets the drone close enough to the whale to catch a sample as the whale exhales through its blowhole.  This method is unnoticeable to the whales, and once again safer for those collecting this data.