From national security surveillance to your cousin’s summer wedding, drones are being deployed to capture aerial images more frequently than ever before. Serving as a camera in the sky may be their primary value to date, but devotees of the unmanned aircraft see greater potential in the technology.

In addition to high-definition cameras, drones can transport a variety of information-gathering hardware, giving them purpose that spans from recreation to health to science. Take a look at some of the unique and unexpected ways drones are being used today — and could be used in the near future.

1. ELDER AND END-OF-LIFE CARE

Tom Davis started a side business that collects aerial images for real estate and entertainment companies using drones, but his company Aerial Anthropology has found a new focus of late. The Cleveland-based firm now uses drones to show people with terminal illness and living in hospice their beloved locations, such as a childhood hometown or favorite vacation spot, one final time.

“They’re watching live on a screen while the drone is actually at their location of choice,” Davis said. “They can interact and say let’s go over here, let’s go a little higher, let’s go out on the water.” Davis said patients are grateful for the visual escape, and he now hopes to expand the concept beyond Ohio.

 

Others see drones as an opportunity to help the elderly receive more attentive care and stay in their homes longer. Naira Hovakimyan, a professor at the University of Illinois, received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to experiment with drones that can perform simple household tasks, such as transporting a bottle of medicine, the New York Times reported in December.

2. FITNESS

It’s hard to imagine a personal trainer or workout buddy that hovers several feet overhead, but that’s exactly the role some sports enthusiasts expect drones to play. Engadget wrote last week about Virgin Active, a health club chain owned by business mogul Richard Branson, offering a drone that serves tennis balls to players looking to perfect their swing.

 

At the University of Nevada at Reno, researchers are developing a drone that monitors the path of blind runners using a pair of cameras and emits sound to guide those runners as they make their way around a track. Eelke Folmer, an associated professor at the university, hopes the drone will allow the visually impaired, a group that suffers from higher rates of obesity, to exercise more easily.

But the technology still has room for improvement, Folmer cautions. For one, even the most advanced commercial drones have a flight time of up to 25 minutes and might tire before the athlete. The limited accuracy of GPS technology also restricts the drone’s ability to navigate treacherous or compact spaces with precision. “This is an ambitious project, and we’re doing the baby steps right now,” Folmer said.

3. WILDLIFE RESEARCH AND PRESERVATION

A biology professor at Alabama’s Samford University discovered two species of endangered fish in the state’s waterways with the help of a drone, AL.com reported last week, in part because the unmanned aircraft can reach areas not easily accessible by boat and can survey the water from a closer distance than a helicopter.

Meanwhile, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a private research facility in Cape Cod, Mass., has used the flying devices to collect photographs and breath samples from humpback whales for scientific research. A drone affixed with petri dishes hovers over the animal’s blowhole as it exhales, then returns to a ship where the sample is immediately frozen, said assistant scientist Amy Apprill. Scientists then study the microbes in each breath sample, and compare them across different species and environments.


Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts fly drones over humpback whales to collect breath samples. (Michael Moore, WHOI/NMFS Permit No. 17355-01)


4. CATCHING OTHER DRONES

Aviation regulators have strict guidelines about when and where drones can be flown, and who is authorized to pilot them. Sometimes a “rogue drone” will fly in the face of these rules and, well, those rogue drones need to be taken out. That’s why authorities in Japan launched drones at the end of last year that carry large nets to catch rogue drones, similar to the way a spider’s web catches flies.

 

The Dutch have a less technical approach to the problem. In the Netherlands, eagles have been trained to swoop down and capture the rogue drone in their talons.