TALES OF OUR TIMES: Drones Are All The Buzz

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Drones Are All The Buzz

“Drone” has assorted meanings that fit the range of human industry. To honey farmers, a drone is a male honeybee, which is stingless and makes no honey.

In military news, a drone is an unmanned aircraft steered by itself or by remote control that packs detectors and deadly weapons. Some say the name recalls the plane’s bee-like shape.

Bagpipes get their commanding voice from the loud one-note pipes called drones.

Today’s topic is the variety of tasks that flying drones are doing. Military drones spark many issues in the news. By contrast, civilian drones get less attention, leaving us a windfall of civilian news to marvel at.

Drones bring new muscle to the old fight against wildfires. New tools include heat sensors, fancy cameras and weather instruments that are flown aboard drones in and out of deep forests. Firefighters get more of the needed data faster, day and night, than ever before. Dropping fire retardant from drones is the next advance. 

Small drones can fly a wide range of marvelous instruments into harsh, remote terrains to find out all sorts of things. The instruments carried depend on what the user wants to find.

For instance, a drone to search for oil, gas and mineral deposits uses geomagnetic measurements to map local variations in the Earth’s magnetic field strength. These data reveal underlying formations of magnetic rock, which tell geophysicists the most likely places to drill and find natural resources.

Oil, in turn, makes more work for drones. Anywhere oil flows in bulk is near a pipeline that needs better inspection routines.

Why inspect better? Some 167,000 miles of pipeline in the U.S. carry oil and petroleum products. The piping has about 100 significant spills a year, which no one is proud to point out.

Inspection rules focus where the public does, namely, on pipelines near towns, cities and special environmental areas. As a result, over half the pipeline miles are rarely inspected.

Drones toting fancy cameras meet the need to scout for spills in long stretches of hard-to-reach places. Society has countless reasons to scout far and wide.

A vital job is finding lost hikers to aid rescuers. Other needs are patrolling highways and national borders and keeping an eagle eye out for crime. The work done by drones keeps expanding.

Drones small enough to fit in a car are learning to monitor pollution sources and report leaks or abnormal emissions. Chemicals present are identified by laser spectroscopy brought to the scene on a drone.

Drones can look into nature’s secrets in volcanoes, hurricanes and rain forests. Drones can track wildlife, livestock and people. Drones can watch over archeological sites.

Drones are now banned from some large national parks for disrupting the quiet, harassing wildlife and crashing into the world’s third largest hot spring in Yellowstone. Just last week, our neighbor Bandelier National Monument took the same step.  

Drones save time and money in gathering news that is now tracked by manned aircraft. Drones could find their own news about releases of poison gas in Syria.

The promise of drones is supported by people who see the benefits gained.

At the same time, worries grow. A concern is the popular question that has no answer – the question of privacy. Where is the line between scouting and spying? Opposition to many uses of drones stems from the public fear that privacy will be lost to the long reach of bureaus.

Oddly, this fear grows in these times when people think up notorious deeds that will get their name and face on national news for a spell. Bizarre acts, eye-catching property damage, and the grimmest of crimes are done solely to gain attention. Human nature is an inbred web of contradictions.

Drones have fewer complications. They simply buzz off to work.

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