Ask someone what a drone is used for and you’re likely to receive any number of responses. A photographer might tell you they’re great for shooting aerial footage, while a farmer might share how they use agricultural drones for targeted pesticide spraying. Someone might even mention hearing about a fleet of experimental delivery drones. You’re also sure to hear from detractors, many of whom only are only familiar with drones’ military or surveillance uses. So, which is it? Are drones a plaything for hobbyists or a conveyance for precision-guided munitions? Are they used for good or evil?

Like all technology, drones are not inherently good or evil. How our society uses drones is what matters, and lately, they’ve been used to accomplish some incredible things. We’ll be taking an in-depth look at drones and some of their more novel uses. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a use for drone technology in your own profession.

What Is a Drone?

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that are remotely piloted or follow a preprogrammed flight path, and their development dates back to World War I. Developed in secret in 1918, the Kettering Aerial Torpedo was the first functioning UAV, although it was little more than a cobbled-together wooden biplane turned bomb. The “Bug,” as it came to be known, was designed to shed its wings and plummet onto its target once a predetermined number of engine revolutions were reached, but, alas, the war ended before the Bug could see battle.

A Bad Reputation

Drones are lighter and more efficient than traditional aircraft, requiring no systems to support an onboard pilot, so it was only a matter of time before world militaries began using them in earnest. The U.S. began deploying military drones for surveillance and reconnaissance beginning in the early 1980s, and by 1990, they were equipped with antitank missiles. Predator drones have since become a symbol of 21st-century warfare, especially in connection to the war on terror. The MQ-9 Reaper is the U.S. Air Force’s latest unmanned combat aerial vehicle, and with a wingspan of 66 feet, it’s hard to imagine how it could have anything in common with the recreational drone sitting on your local store shelf.

An Untapped Resource

Drone strikes have been heavily criticized for misidentifying targets and killing innocent civilians, giving rise to the notion that drones are inherently harmful. However, the same technology behind military drones has been refined and miniaturized into the lightweight, battery-operated drones we see today. Able to reach remote areas with little time or effort, drones are being adopted across industries as more businesses realize their untapped potential.

A Data-Driven Industry

Take for instance the geospatial industry. Geospatial data is information about objects, events, and other details attributed to a location on Earth. When you see a hurricane map showing areas of rainfall, flooding, and lightning, you’re seeing this data visualized in a geospatial information system (GIS). This data is also essential for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), or the use of insight gleaned from imagery and geospatial information.

For a demonstration of the power and influence of geospatial data, you only need to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. The intelligence gained from aerial surveillance photography not only revealed the presence of Cuban missile installations to President John F. Kennedy but also provided the evidence he needed to demand for their immediate removal during a televised speech. The ensuing 13-day political and military standoff ended with a deal struck between the U.S. and Soviet Union. If not for GEOINT, who knows how these events would have played out.

A Tool Unlike Any Other

Geospatial data influences everything from urban planning to biodiversity conservation to disaster management, but collecting it isn’t easy. Drones play a crucial role in this industry, where a GIS lives and dies by up-to-date data. While there are many modern survey tools, including GPS, their level of precision can’t compete with UAVs, which can be deployed with ease, operated automatically or remotely, and used to collect data in all sorts of environments while reducing risk to persons or property. If you’re pursuing a career in geoscience, environmental science, public health, business management, or social analytics, you may soon find yourself using drones and other GIS technologies.

Reach New Heights at UT Permian Basin

The University of Texas Permian Basin offers an online GIS and Geospatial Certificate program that will provide the experience you need to apply GIS and geospatial science and technology in your career. Throughout our program, you’ll work with ArcGIS online tools, GIS maps, and geographic data, all while learning how data can be visualized to inform decisions and solve problems. Mapping and Cartography is a course that may be of particular interest to you, as it explores how geospatial data, such as the data derived from drones, can be used to create 2D maps and 3D scenes to convey issues, events, and themes.

Courses are entirely online and asynchronous, enabling you to complete coursework on your own time, at your own pace. Maintain your current position while gaining real-world skills and preparing for a career in geology, cartography, geography, or one of the many other industries that rely on geospatial data. Apply to our online GIS and Geospatial Certificate program to prepare for a career in which drones and other GIS technologies are employed to make the world a better place.