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Drones for Good: Superhero UAVs Compete for $1 Million Prize

Despite their mushrooming popularity, drones are suffering from a bit of a PR problem of late — what with the drug smuggling and the flamethrowing and the tom peeping.

So it’s nice to see some news on the upside of drone utility. To wit, the finalists for the UAE Drones For Good Award were announced this week.

Now in its second year, the international competition is sponsored by the government of the United Arab Emirates and challenges entrants to “improve people’s lives and provide technological solutions to modern day issues,” according to the mission statement. The gist: Teams from around the planet submit their “good guy” drone projects for a chance at a $1 million dollar grand prize.

In other words, these are superhero drones, designed to counter the nefarious deeds of villainous drones and fight for truth, justice, and the, um, UAE way, I suppose.

Related: Feds to Washington D.C. Drone Enthusiasts: You’re Grounded

In any case, the concepts put forth by the 20 finalists — selected from more than 1,000 entries — are really quite empirically cool.

Take for instance the Loon Copter, developed by an engineering team in Michigan. Named after the famous diving duck, the Loon is really three drones in one — it’s capable of aerial flight, on-water surface operation, and underwater diving.

The Loon Copter could be useful, designers say, for marine research projects, tracking oil spills, or even crime scene investigations. The Loon could fly to the middle of a lake, land on the surface, then dive and use its underwater cameras to scan for evidence.

Then there’s the Flare 2.0 drone, which takes the old idea of the flare gun into new territory. If you’re stranded in a remote area, away from any mobile phone coverage, the Flare flies away and finds the nearest mobile network. The drone then transmits an SOS along with GPS information on your location and any other details about your emergency.

The idea is to pack the drone into a kind of next-generation outdoor survival kit. The drone folds up, scissorlike, into a lightweight cylinder that can be fit into a backpack or otherwise taken on your expedition. The UAE design team behind the Flare was inspired by a recent camping-in-the-desert adventure gone sideways.

The SenseLab Research Group, based in Greece, has put forth a similar idea with its SaveME project, which takes things a step further. The team’s “phone-drone” concept is just that — a mobile phone outfitted with detachable rotors for situational heroics.

In a crisis scenario, your own mobile phone could take off to find help — like a 21st century Lassie — or even fly to the nearest hospital or pharmacy and fetch needed medication.

If you’re at all interested in the bright side of future drone technology, it’s a lot of fun to poke around the Drones for Good online pavilion and see what’s what. Among the categories these drone projects are competing in: Health, Environment, Economy, Education, and Humanitarian Aid.

Final winners of the 2016 competition will be announced February 7, with the top International Prize winner getting a cool US$1 million. That’ll help the old R&D budget along. You can check out a video compilation of last year’s Drones for Good competition below.

Glenn McDonald writes about the intersections of technology and culture at glenn-mcdonald.com and via Twitter @glennmcdonald1.