When you hear the word “drone” you tend to think of a toy or a cool gadget you can play with your friends/family with, rather than a potentially life-saving device.

Around the world, drones are currently being used as both a fun and playful toy, and a device that plays an important role in saving lives.

The options for drone use are becoming wider and wider; Google ‘drones’ and ‘law enforcement’ and you’ll see more words like ‘surveillance’ and ‘crime prevention’ pop up, than you would’ve seen 2 or 3 years ago.

The massive potential for drone use in helping humanity is soaring as people are coming up with innovative ideas as to how to use these small devices to better the lives of others. From military use, to saving refugees – these small machines could help and save millions of people.

Accident Scene Response:

So we already know drones are frequently used in the military and the police do use them on occasion for ‘surveillance’ and ‘crime prevention’ (and their now thinking of using them to control protests and investigate burglaries – more on that later), but we haven’t heard much yet about accident response. Yet being the relevant word.

When an accident occurs, it’s in everyone’s best interest to clear the area ASAP, but the scene must be documented first. Currently, the most common way that accidents are documented are with laser scanners, total stations, and photography (and quite often a combination of all 3) however this can take a long time and could require people on the ground at the scene of the accident – something that’s not always achievable at a severe crash site, or somewhere not easily accessible by police cars and ambulances.

“When you look at the conventional methods, you’re looking at time,” says James Addison, a retired police lieutenant and forensic reconstructionist in the private sector. “You’re under a lot of pressure…To have a freeway closed for 5 or 6 hours to investigate a scene creates a lot of tension.”

Drones, on the other hand, can easily attend the scene of the accident quickly and are perfect for quickly and accurately assessing scenes. We already know drones can record and take pictures, which makes documenting these scenes (for later use in court or insurance) much easier.

It’s also much cheaper to deploy drones to the scene of a crash, rather than closing roads causing traffic jams, whilst also reducing the risk to people as well. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), every minute an accident continues to be a hazard increases the chance of additional accidents by 2.8%

“By deploying drones as a tool to clean up accidents more quickly,” says Steve McKinzie, CEO of an accident investigation and reconstruction firm, “We cut the economic loss of communities where critical highway incidences occur, we improve the safety of the working environment of the first responders, policemen, fire-fighters and EMS, and we reduce the secondary collisions.”

Refugee Search and Rescue:

It’s not un-known that the Mediterranean has become a used route for refugees from Libya. Alou Sango, who boarded an overcrowded boat In Libya to flee his country, feared for his life, “I thought that we would all die, because there was nothing left, the petrol had finished.”

Unfortunately, the boat became lost, and with no GPS to give to the authorities, it seemed hopeless for the (roughly) 100 passengers aboard the boat.

They were finally seen by a Chinese vessel, who took the refugees aboard and took them to Italy. This story is a shining example of one of the biggest challenges that rescuers face – struggling to pinpoint the whereabouts of tiny rubber dinghies floating across the ocean.

Head of operations at the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, Ian Ruggier, says a drone that has a camera equipped enables his team to focus their response. “You have an image and can see what’s actually happening. That helps the decision-making process,”

After beginning operations at sea during 2014, MOAS has saved over 11,685 people in the Mediterranean with the help of a drone. Those rescued have no idea of the technology which came to save them, Ruggier says, as the “drone flies too high for them to see it.”

While MOAS’s ship patrols the waters, a 250kg drone is deployed from the deck and sends footage back to a team of three which runs the drone’s daily flight operations. The regular and thermal images sent back have proved to be potentially life-saving.

“A couple of times there was a blip just beyond the flight path. We went to visit and there were boats in difficulty,” says Ruggier. “Had we not been flying they might have been missed, the situation might have been worse, or we might have come across it much later.”

The extremely high importance of finding missing boats became clear in April this year when it was reported that 500 people drowned in the Mediterranean, leaving only 41 survivors who explained they had been drifting for 3 days before being spotted.

MOAS are planning to continue using drones throughout the rest of this year; they are using a UAV model built by Schiebel, an Austrian company. This particular model has also been used to monitor the peace deal in Ukraine. Hans Georg Schiebel, the firm’s chairman and owner, says no matter what the use, the main purpose is to expand a user’s horizons. “The problem is that the earth and the water is a ball, so you don’t see very far at sea. Sight is extremely limited,”

Military Help:

This time last year, June 2015, a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter left an air base in Alaska and flew over a military training range at about 430 miles per hour. Suddenly, something burst from the fighter’s flare dispenser; a drone roughly the size of a can and weighing just one pound.

The small, orange and black coloured robot floated toward the ground trailing a parachute behind. After a few seconds, the parachute broke free from the drone. The robot’s wings, originally folded into the body to keep the device small, extended outward. An inch-wide propeller began spinning.

This particular drone is called “Perdix.” It’s the latest drone to be made by secretive Pentagon organization, the Strategic Capabilities Office, whose job is to find new ways to deploy existing weapons.

One of their latest ideas is to transform F-16s and other high-speed jets into launchers for swarms of small drones that could confuse enemy defences or perform surveillance.

Perdix was originally developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in 2011. The students first tested the Perdixes from balloons and designed the drones to be small unmanned aerial vehicles supporting environmental monitoring.

However, it was the military that was the most interested in the drones; The Strategic Capabilities Office (a 26-person team led by William Roper, who previously worked for the military on missile defence) first began experimenting with Perdix in 2014.

“The specifics of what the mini-drones can do are classified, but they could be used to confuse enemy forces and carry out surveillance missions using equipment that costs much less than full-sized unmanned aircraft,” The Washington Post were reported saying.

However fighter-launched robotic decoys are not all that new. The F-16 was one of the first military aircrafts to launch the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, a 10-foot-long, radar-avoiding drone, which started in the late 1990s.

The difference is the way the Perdix swarms. While an F-16 might launch only a couple of MALDs, the same plane could deploy up to 30 Perdixes,  making the smaller drones much harder to destroy (as they’re such a small target) and potentially much more effective.

Medicating War-Ridden Countries:

Zipline, a medicinal drone delivery service, operates specifically in Rwanda aiming to “deliver all blood products for twenty hospitals and health centres starting this summer, improving access to healthcare for millions of Rwandans.”

A recent test run has shown the world the effectiveness of Zipline, which is designed more like a plane-shaped model rather than the classic quadcopter version, after successfully delivering a blood packet via parachute. Launched with a slingshot, the strange design is one of few that takes off just as planes do.

“Using many of the same approaches as commercial airliners, it can carry vaccines, medicine, or blood. A fleet of Zips is able to provide for a population of millions. No roads, no problem.”

Once Zipline has fully established itself, the ideal vision is to go global with the plan to medicate war-ridden countries. “It’ll save hundreds of lives in the first couple years, if everything goes right,” affirms Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder. Having raised almost $18m with help from investors such as GV (Google Ventures), Stanford University and other big names, the five-year-old start-up should be able to put their plan into action soon.

Police Use:

UK police are planning to start using drones to help them investigate burglaries, control protests and carry out sieges.

Drones will be used by UK police forces after a number of senior police officials concluded that they were an acceptable alternative to current methods such as helicopters, police dogs, and potentially even officers themselves.

Over 25% of the police forces in England and Wales are deciding whether they should start using drones in their operations.

Steve Barry, the National Police Chief’s Council lead on drones, claims that members of the public should expect to see more police-controlled drones flying around the country.

Police in Surrey and Sussex have already successfully carried out drone trials; one trial in particular reportedly took place at Gatwick Airport involving a drone equipped with a camera that patrolled the perimeter of the airport looking for suspicious activity.

After the trial, Sussex and Surrey police were given a £250,000 grant from the Police Innovation Fund to purchase 5 SkyRanger drones from labs in Canada. Police are apparently using the drones to search for missing people and are present at accident scenes.

Across the world, law enforcers and military personnel have already begun using the SkyRanger drone to catch drug dealers in Central America and Canada, however in the UK they have only been used by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to help fight fires.

“They [drones] can be efficient and effective,” Steve Barry, the National Police Chief’s Council lead on drones, told The Times. “If someone breaks into your shed and then makes off, and there are dozens of back sheds he might be hiding in… drones could be the perfect solution. They would be quicker than dogs.”

Barry also claimed drones could be used during sieges when officers can’t access the crime scene for whatever reason. “You could send up the drone and use the videolink before making a decision how to proceed,”