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Drones for Good offers a cool million to lifesaving, forest-replanting, landmine-hunting UAVs

An international competition will reward people with ideas for unmanned aerial vehicles that make the world a better place.

Unmanned aerial vehicles like this Inspire 1 drone could be a familiar sight in our skies -- and let's hope they're helping make the world a better place. ChinaFotoPress/Getty

There's more to drones than missile strikes and sinister surveillance. The Drones for Good competition challenges innovators from around the globe to come up with unmanned aerial vehicles that help people, protect the environment and save lives.

Drones for Good is an international competition to reward people with ideas for civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to make the world a better place. The first prize is a cool $1m.

If there's any doubt that drones are very much a thing now, the competition attacked more than 800 entries from 57 countries. That's been whittled down to 19 international semi-finalists, and the winner will be named on 8 February in Dubai.

Saving the environment

One UK team wants to use drones to fire nutrient-rich seedpods into the ground in areas where trees have been cut down on an industrial scale, replanting deforested areas faster than current methods allow. Another proposal involves using drones to fly over national parks, allowing rangers to combat poachers of endangered animals such as tigers in Thailand or rhinos in South Africa.

A Spanish team has the idea of using a drone to hunt for deadly landmines by filming mine-littered areas from the air, in order to then analyse and mark where explosives are hidden. Another entrant wants to use drones to survey chaotic slums that have grown with no infrastructure to allow for the area to be developed.

Disaster rescue

New Zealand coastguard plans to deploy long-range UAVs ahead of rescue boats sent out to look for survivors of naval disasters or carry out search and rescue missions along the coast. The drone can cover a wider area in a much faster time, and if necessary can drop a life raft or even ditch in the water for the survivor to cling to.

A similar idea is Robolifeguard, a modular drone that can be configured for different situations, such as adding a shark-deterring module.

A Swiss team has come up with a way of getting into ruined buildings and the sites of disasters such as the Fukushima power plant. Unlike drones that can't navigate tight spaces, the Gimball UAV is specifically designed to crash into walls and wreckage -- it's contained in a wire ball so it can bounce off walls, bump into wreckage and even roll along the ground to search inside ruined buildings.

With a heart or lungs or other organs only surviving a limited time once removed from a donor, speed is of the essence when it comes to getting donated organs to the person who needs them. A Spanish team wants to use drones equipped with a fridge to carry organs for quick transplant. Other teams want to use drones to deliver first aid supplies or fight fires at emergency sites.

Of all the drones, probably the best name belongs to the First Response Infrastructure Emergency Network of Drone Systems -- otherwise known as the FRIENDS project.

Worker drones

More commercial proposals include monitoring parking, checking power grids for faults or photographing beauty spots for people to explore from their computer. Another drone clears runways or motorways of fog and smog, and another cleans windows at high altitudes.

One proposal addresses the problem of using drones for delivering packages that you've ordered, something that Amazon has considered. Courier-drones can't just drop packages out of the sky and they might struggle to land if you don't have a spacious yard. So instead of developing a drone, Clinton Burchat has come up with what is essentially a giant letterbox for a package-laden UAV, marked with barcodes to identify the correct address and a handy net to catch the parcel -- hence the name, which is, er, Skynet.