From exploring the sea to fighting poaching: the latest new drone tech

When we think of civilian drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), many of us imagine parents and kids playing with the high-tech toys in parks, or remember articles we've read about the fad of "selfie drones" that always seems to be on the horizon. However, recent innovations in UAV technology combined with clever ideas for drone use are making it possible to explore our world in exciting new ways.

Take endangered wildlife in parts of Africa, for example. Many of the continent's most beloved creatures have long been threatened by poachers, even in the vast parks set up to contain and protect them. Park officials and conservation groups have tried every tactic imaginable to deter poachers, including extreme measures like infusing Rhino horns with a substance toxic to humans. For years, parks and conservationists have used airplanes and human pilots to patrol parks, a tactic which can effectively catch poachers, but is often prohibitively expensive and sometimes dangerous.

Enter drones: Bathawk Recon, a UAV anti-poaching surveillance company, recently conducted a test of its "Super Bat" drone in Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. Over five days of flying over the park, they tested range, sound, effectiveness and endurance of the drone's sensors, among other factors. The tests proved promising — according to Bathawk, "the Super Bat, even operating at the maximum altitude agreed with civil aviation, could detect people, follow them through the bush, zoom in on game and do it all in both in Video and Infrared." Though this program is in its early stages, it's easy to imagine a future in which fleets of drones silently monitor and help protect our most treasured wildlife. 

With continued technological advancements, drones are no longer limited to the air — UAVs can now go in water, too. (In fact, underwater drone technology preceded the popularity of flying drones — think of director James Cameron's underwater explorations.) A startup called OpenRov has recently become a blockbuster crowdfunding success with its consumer drone that lets anyone explore underwater. The Trident is an AUV — Autonomous Underwater Vehicle — and an open-source project four years in the making that OpenRov says will allow its pilots to "fly" in long straight lines, as well as take tight curves gracefully, recording video of everything from coral reefs and colorful fish to shipwrecks. While the Trident, which OpenRov plans to release in fall 2016, has a hefty price tag of just over a thousand dollars, it's a good bet that early adopters will pay to get the ultimate ocean explorer's gadget. It's also not hard to imagine UAVs like the Trident becoming available for rent as entertainment at seaside resorts.

Miné Salkin, a digital strategist and drone expert, sees a future for drones that includes not only these innovations but humanitarian ones, as well. "Drones can be used as tools to protect human rights — not only as a vessel of a humanitarian initiative, but as a medium for reporting," Salkin says. She points to an initiative called World of Drones, which "discusses the use of drones to protect and promote property rights and human rights."

"Sure, drones are doing some pretty cool things," Salkin says. "But selfies aren't the only good they're bringing to the public."

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