Chris McColl of the Nature Conservancy release a drone to take photos and track the population of Sandhill Cranes in Staten Island, Calif. (Drew Kelly/The Nature Conservancy)

Today drones are generally illegal to operate commercially, and Americans are skeptical of them. An Associated Press poll found that only 21 percent of Americans favor commercial use of drones.

But amid that bad rap, drones are quietly proving ways they can save taxpayers money, and help businesses serve their customers better.

While privacy and safety concerns remain — as is typical with any emerging technology — U.S. drone operators with FAA exemptions are backing up claims that drones will reinvent how the world operates.

“It’s more effective, it’s more efficient and it’s life-saving,” said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “People will realize this is a better way of doing what they’ve done before.”

Right now, as only a small group of commercial drone operators have approval to fly in the United States, we’re seeing a few drops of potential leak from a spigot. Once rules are in place for commercial drone use, expect a flood of creativity that consumers and taxpayers can benefit from.

Here are five successful cases happening today that hint at a bright and useful future for drones:


With drones golf viewers can see the course like never before. (HeliVideo)

1. Sports broadcasts

In December Fox Sports used drones to enhance its broadcast of the Franklin Templeton Shootout, a golf tournament in Naples, Fla.

“We’re embarking on something really big here and I think it’s going to be great for golf,” said Brad Cheney, director of technical operations at Fox Sports.“It’s a tool to help us describe what’s going on on the course in a much better fashion and I think there’s little doubt that this is going to be a very big part of our tool set going forward.”

Traditionally a golf tournament is televised with fixed cameras positioned around the course, handheld cameras and blimps. Fox Sports used drones to cheaply and efficiently capture aerial footage that TV viewers would never had access to before.

A few days before a golf tournament starts the course is generally closed for part of a day so that a helicopter can fly over and gather footage. For a viewer, it’s helpful to understand the type of shot a player will be hitting. But the hole locations at a golf tournament shift each day, forcing players to hit their approach shots on different paths.  Because of this the generic helicopter footage fails to show the path of the shot a player will need to hit.

A broadcaster, for cost and logistical reasons, can’t shut down the course on the final morning of play to make another helicopter run. But closing a couple holes for fresh drone footage? That’s doable.

Notice how this shot is pinpointed on the location of the hole, giving the viewer a chance to see the path a player’s shot should follow:


(HeliVideo)

Because drones are more maneuverable and less expensive to operate, more cameras angles can be captured. For example, a drone can fly into a sand trap and then out, so viewers can better appreciate how challenging the terrain is.


(HeliVideo)

The network worked with drone operator HeliVideo, which has an FAA exemption, to shoot footage at the tournament. Fox Sports says it is the first broadcaster of a U.S. event to use a drone.

Fox Sports expects to use drones at more golf tournaments in 2015, including the U.S. Open.

“When you talk about being able to do things precisely which is what we’re all trying to do more and more of, the drones really give you that ability to stay low, be precise, move fluidly throughout the course and also pick up and jump to the next spot without having to waste a lot of time flying,” Cheney said.


The amphibious drone floats in the water outside Haiti. Note the GoPro camera that hangs in the water. (Tim Calver)

2. Monitoring coral reefs

Researchers are using an amphibious drone to take photos and videos of the coral reefs around the Caribbean. Steve Schill, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program charts the reefs to pinpoint rare coral reefs so he can determine what areas are most deserving of being designated as protected areas.

The water is especially shallow near some reefs, making it impossible to navigate near them in a boat, and difficult for a researcher in a SCUBA suit to assess the reefs. So Schill challenged a student of his to build an amphibious drone that could land on the water and shoot underwater footage.

“It’s an important tool that we’re not going to see go away in the conservationist’s toolbox,” Schill said. “It fills a mapping niche and as drone technology improves, we’ll be able to obtain more accurate information.”

He plans to compare the drone’s photos and videos in coming years, to track whether the reefs are growing or shrinking.


A drone, the Trimble UX5, prepares to take off at West Salt Creek landslide near Collbran, Colo. (Frank Kochevar)

3. Aerial surveying

The public works department in Mesa County, Colo., has cut its costs by using a drone for jobs traditionally reserved for manned aircraft.

Instead of paying a manned aircraft to fly over its landfill, surveyor Frank Kochevar relies on a fixed-wing UAV at about a third of the cost.

“In the past it was a chore to schedule an aerial mapping contractor, get bids, do this, weather was always a problem and with the UX5 we can go out there and in approximately 35 minutes we have flown it, we can get back to our offices and have real data within a couple days,” Kochevar said. Previously it took up to a month to get data.

The drone maps the surface of the landfill so that Kochevar can compare the volume to previous measurements and make sure the contractor is compacting trash as much as he’s required.

In mid-2014 the drone also proved its worth for Kochevar after a massive landslide. The county received bids from aerial contractors to fly over and survey the damage. The prices ranged from $80,000 to $120,000. Instead Kochevar used his drone, a Trimble UX5, which was purchased for $65,000.

“I consider the system paid for. Everything else is gravy. It’s not costing Mesa County or the taxpayers one dime,” said Kochevar said, who expects UAS aerial mapping to become the next utility in surveying.


A worker launches a drone over BP’s oil fields in Alaska. (BP)

4. Inspecting oil fields

In Alaska BP is shifting to use drones to inspect its flare stacks.

“It’s a huge improvement in speed and accuracy and safety,” said Curt Smith, BP’s chief technology officer.

To inspect them previously required shutting the flare stack down and setting up scaffolding or ropes for a person to get in the proper position. With a quadcopter, BP has been able to keep flare stacks running during inspection, and keep employees in a safer position, on the ground.

A camera pops out of the Puma AE, the 15-pound drone BP is using. Its wingspan is about seven feet. (BP)
A camera pops out of the Puma AE, one of the drones BP is using. It weighs 15 pounds and has a wingspan of about seven feet. (BP)

BP is also using drones to 3D map the 200-mile network of gravel roads that its massive drill rigs drive on. The maps are used to automatically alert drivers when they are beginning to drive off the road. Previously a team would have to walk alongside and radio to the driver when they were veering off course.


Mesa County uses a drone to make 3D maps of crime scenes. Here’s an example of a 3D map the sheriffs can create. (Ben Miller)

5. Mapping crime scenes

The sheriff department of Mesa County (Colo.) uses its drones primarily for crime scene reconstruction. Flying a helicopter overhead to take images would be prohibitory expensive. The downforce would also likely blow things around, disrupting the crime scene. For major crimes the sheriffs arrive with a drone and have it fly back and forth over the scene, capturing images that software later stitches into a 3D model. Measurements can later be calculated from the 3D model, which wouldn’t be an option with traditional photos of a crime scene.

Ben Miller, who manages the office’s unmanned aircraft program, has also used the drones’ infrared camera for search and rescue operations.

“I can do one third of what they do for 2 percent of the cost,” Miller said of police helicopters.

Perhaps most promising is just how early we are in the drone economy. As entrepreneurs have more time to develop uses for drones, their products will only get better.

“The UAV is like the Sony Mavica,”said Javier Irizarry, a Georgia Tech drone researcher, referring to an early still video camera. “But fast forward 10 years and it will be amazing all the things you could do.”

Related: America’s clumsy regulation of drones stirs up frustration, confusion