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Drones: Not just for war anymore?

Drone warfare isn't going anywhere, but drone utility could be growing. Marc Lallanilla, assistant editor at Live Science, proposes eight "totally cool" new uses for drones.

By Marc LallanillaLiveScience / March 25, 2013

This 2004 photo shows the then-new drone flying near Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The unmanned drone, launched by the Border Patrol in June 2004, uses thermal and night-vision equipment to help agents spot illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert into the United States.

John Miller / AP

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Just a few years ago, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were virtually unknown.

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But the remote-controlled aircraft have stealthily slipped over the horizon and are now causing a buzz from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to the rain forests of Sumatra.

"I am convinced that the domestic use of drones to conduct surveillance and collect other information will have a broad and significant impact on the everyday lives of millions of Americans," Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of a Senate Judiciary Committee looking into drone legislation, said on Thursday, March 21, CNN reports.

There's little doubt that UAV technology is here to stay, but their use isn't limited to cloak-and-dagger operations and military technology. Here are eight totally cool ways the drone can be your friend:

Real estate sales

Daniel Gárate had a lucrative career as a UAV videographer, using his $5,000 drone to capture stirring images of high-end properties for the Los Angeles real-estate market — until the Los Angeles Police Department shut him down, declaring that commercial uses for drones were not allowed, the New York Times reports.

That's no longer the case, since a federal law signed in 2012 opened drone technology to commercial applications. Gárate, who also uses drones to take videos for commercials, has also been approached to take paparazzi-style photos of celebrities like Kim Kardashian, the Times reports.

Sports photography

Falkor Systems, a pioneer in the consumer use of UAV technology, has targeted extreme sports photography and video for drone use, focusing on skiing and base-jumping activities.

"The angles people get [while filming] are not quite as intimate as would be possible with an autonomous flying robot," said Sameer Parekh, Falkor CEO, who envisions a small UAV device that can accompany a downhill skier.

"You just take it out, let it take off and it follows you down the hill. You get back on the ski lift and put it back in your backpack," Parekh said.

Highway monitoring

There are roughly 4 million miles of highways crisscrossing the United States, but who's watching them all? Drones, someday.

A project to study the use of drones for inspecting roads and bridges, surveying land with laser mapping and alerting officials to traffic jams and accidents recently received a $75,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"Drones could keep workers safer because they won't be going into traffic or hanging off a bridge," said Javier Irizarry, director of the CONECTech Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as quoted by LiveScience's sister site TechNewsDaily. "It would help with physical limitations of the human when doing this kind of work."

Wildlife research

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been testing the Raven A, a small, camera-equipped drone that's about 3 feet (1 meter) long, to see if it can be used to conduct aerial counts of the endangered sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla). 

"We flew the [drone] over the cranes when they were roosting, feeding, and loafing to see how they reacted," said Leanne Hanson, a field biologist, in a USGS report. "They sat still for us when they were roosting and loafing, but birds flushed during feeding. We will plan missions during roosting and loafing times, when their behavior is not affected."

And critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) nest in treetops, making them difficult to study. Drones, however, can easily navigate the primates' aeries, providing valuable information that will assist in conservation activities, reports PCMag.com.

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