A lifeguard-controlled drone scours for sharks at Seal Beach in Southern California. In Germany, a drone brings a defibrillator to a man on a golf course having a heart attack. And during the floods in Texas this year, drones served up flotation devices to stranded people.
While the Federal Aviation Administration mulls over its drone regulations, which are scheduled to be released next spring, the remote-controlled devices are already being used around the world to keep us safe. In times of crisis, a drone is often the cheapest and most efficient tool to find a missing person, help monitor a criminal on the run, or survey a disaster scene.
"There are countless applications for using drones to help people," said DJI's vice president of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman. "One of the most beneficial is search and rescue."
Instead of spending thousands of dollars an hour on a helicopter, a small, $2,000 battery-powered drone can travel to remote areas with infrared cameras and sophisticated sensors to spot lost people day or night. Though the drone cannot actually perform the rescue, it can give officials information about exactly where they need to dispense a helicopter or ground crew, saving time, money and possibly a life.
"It will help keep our citizens safe by giving us an additional tool to respond to incidences," said Chris Dunn, commander at the Ventura County, California, Sheriff's Office. "Eventually we'll just get better at it and we'll be able to make those critical decisions sooner and that will help save lives."
Dunn oversees the unmanned aviation systems unit for Ventura County. It is one of the first counties in the country to include drones in law enforcement. Last year Dunn deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to search for a missing firefighter in the Sespe Wilderness area and since then has expanded drone use to hazmat operations, traffic accidents, bomb operations and other critical incidents.
Law enforcement agencies around the country are interested in using drones, but actually getting drones into operation is a slow process, Dunn said.
"Law enforcement has wanted to use drones for many years," said Gretchen West, senior advisor at Hogan Lovells and a drone policy expert. "But a lot of the state bills that have come out have actually limited law enforcement use of drones because of the general public's concern about big brother government watching them."
But Dunn hopes to assuage those concerns, explaining that the drones aren't even equipped to snoop on the public.
"We have no interest in spying on people that aren't doing anything illegal," he said. "The device we are using is five pounds. It can fly for 40 minutes. It doesn't have the capability to do what most people are concerned about."
Dunn and his team underwent rigorous training and years of "red tape" and he hopes to see the regulations ease up to more easily deploy drones.
"Would I like to see more lenient regulation as far as the air space goes? Yes, I would like the air space opened up to us for operations." Dunn said. "These devices are very simple to fly. They operate very similar to the toys that are being distributed this Christmas to preteens out there and they can figure out how to fly them so I think the training is sufficient."
Still, though drones offer up some undeniably positive services, the question remains — how do we keep this technology out of the hands of "bad guys?"
The FAA is currently looking to make drone operators register their devices, though it's unclear what effect that would have.
"Can you keep anything out of the hands of someone who wants to use it for illicit purposes? No," Dunn said. "Would you say we are going to restrict laptop use because people use those for illicit purposes? No, we just have to deal with it when they do, similar to any other technology."