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Drones head in new directions

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By John Bartlit

“Drone” is a word whose assorted meanings 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 comes from 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 jobs being worked in new ways by drones that fly.
Military drones, with all the issues they touch on, are frequent newsmakers. By contrast, civilian drones get less attention, which leaves a windfall of wonderment for Sunday writing.
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 or night, than they could before.
Drones help further by dropping fire retardant where it does the most good.
In broad terms, small drones can fly a wide range of marvelous instruments into harsh, remote terrains to find out all sorts of things. The instruments sent out 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 or gas 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 with fancy cameras aboard meet the need to scout for spills in long stretches of hard-to-reach places.
Society has countless reasons to scout in places 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 spreading.
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 work in volcanoes, hurricanes and rain forests. Drones can track wildlife, livestock and people.
Drones save time and money in gathering news that is now tracked by manned aircraft. Drones could find their own news of using poison gas in Syria.
Every use of drones, current or future, is supported by people who see the benefits gained.
At the same time, many uses are questioned. The 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 vast bureaus.
Oddly, this fear grows in these times when people perform notorious acts in high hopes of being seen and named in national news for a spurt. Bizarre deeds, damage to property and the grimmest of crimes are committed solely for this purpose.
Human nature is a curious array of contradictions.
People are more complicated than drones, which simply fly out and do what we expect.

John Bartlit is a member of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.