• A group of mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whales, photographed by a drone, swim close to shore off the coast of Northern Vancouver Island. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

It seems that hardly a day goes by without drones making the news, whether for good reasons (spotting sharks in Australia!) or bad (near misses with aircraft!). With that in mind, here’s the first in a two-part story looking at some of the positive and negative ways the unmanned aerial vehicles are being used.

The positive

Disease prevention
Microsoft’s Project Premonition is experimenting with drones equipped with bug-collection devices to try and identify infectious diseases before they become a threat to humans and wildlife. The captured insects, mainly mosquitoes, are then analyzed in an attempt to predict the likelihood of the local outbreak of disease.

Animal conservation
Often, drones can get much closer to animals than humans can, making them an excellent tool for data collection. For instance, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States and at the Vancouver Aquarium have hovered drones 30 metres above of a group of killer whales in British Columbia. The images they captured contain information that can be used to monitor the health of the whales.

Environmental conservation
To better understand how water vapour affects the ozone layer, NASA is sending a drone between five and seven kilometres above the Earth’s surface into the stratosphere, the part of the Earth’s atmosphere where the ozone layer is found. Equipment aboard the drone will record the chemical reactions between water and chlorine to see whether they destroy the protective layer of gas.

Road inspection
A Georgia Institute of Technology project is using drones to help inspect the roughly six million kilometres of highways in the United States. The drones, which survey the roads and bridges using laser-mapping technology, could also one day alert officials to traffic jams, accidents and road conditions.

Here in Canada, graduate students at the University of New Brunswick are using drones to study how drivers are adapting to Fredericton's first roundabout.

International aid
Solar Ship Inc., a Toronto-based company, builds solar-powered drones that are used to deliver goods to remote locations. The company’s goal is to develop a new mode of transportation that does not depend on fossil fuels, roads or runways. A mission to use Solar Ship's blimp-like drones to deliver medical supplies to refugee camps in Burundi is already underway, and the company hopes to launch a mission to improve the flow of goods to and from remote northern Canadian communities in 2017.

Read part two: The downside of drones