Autonomous systems for environmental monitoring
Autonomous systems are a key priority in governmental agendas. In 2013, David Willetts included them as one of the Eight Great Technologies that will propel the UK to future growth. In 2017, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund was created that prioritised "robotics systems...that can be deployed in extreme environments."
Investment is pushing the technology forward, funding the kind of research that I’ve been working on over recent months – using drones (UAVs) to asses and monitor flooding disasters. This work is crucial because it directly affects people, business, and the country as a whole.
Following strong legislative efforts to improve the quality of freshwater ecosystems, and the Water Framework Directive dictating the parameters to be monitored for the assessment of the ecological status of any given water body within Europe, we worked with the Environment Agency, using UAVs to map rivers for ecological monitoring and assessment on the River Dee. Our collaborative research showed that UAV technology could provide unbiased assessment of our waterways, and the data can be used in river management, restoration and river quality regulatory frameworks, ultimately improving water quality for the benefit of landowners, local authorities and the general population.
The NERC-funded Drone Watch project coincided with the winter storms of 2015 that severely impacted Cumbria. Here we looked at the feasibility of using UAVs in emergency flood situations with the production of timely, on demand and high resolution photography comparable to satellite or aircraft imagery. Uniquely about this project, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had given rare permission to carry out survey works over any congested space in the UK.
And that’s not forgetting the work we’ve done on enabling early detection of biohazards, in this case jellyfish and seaweed blooms, before they arrive at coastal nuclear power plants.
And we’re about to embark on a huge new EPSRC Global Challenge project on emergency flood planning and management using unmanned aerial systems – more details to come on this soon!
These are just a few of examples of where autonomous systems can be used to improve environmental monitoring. The key is being nimble to be able to respond to events as they unfold, industry as it reacts, and policy as it is develops – that’s if we are not directly involved in shaping the policy in the first place.
Why is it important?
Some five million people live in flood risk areas in England and Wales, with one in six homes at risk of flooding. In this century, the economic losses resulting from damage caused by flooding far outweigh the costs associated with other natural disasters; £16bn in losses from 27 instances in the UK.
Near real-time accurate mapping of flood extent, property and infrastructure damage in urban areas is required for the estimation of insurance loss and insurance claim validation. With the 2007 UK floods costing £3b, and an average house claim of £40,000, flood mitigation and damage assessment are a priority for the government and insurance industry.
But emergency response efficiency and damage limitation is just one aspect. Prevention is always the best cure, and as such this work can arm town planners, construction companies, and policy makers with the latest knowledge and forecasting tools. I argued this point in my response to the NFU’s Flood Manifesto.
Of course extreme weather and the fallout from climate change adds yet more complexity and unknowns to the situation, and so we have to adapt, working with the latest technologies and brightest minds to deal with the challenges.
Science for the Green Economy
Which is why this week’s Science for the Green Economy is such a timely and important event. It will bring together a dynamic community of senior practitioners in global companies, Governments, NGOs, universities, scientific institutions and consulting firms to address the challenges we face.
My talk will focus on rivers and novel ways for flood extent monitoring, and how both autonomous boats and drones are becoming key engineering tools for future flood survey tasks and can provide effective ways to collect high resolution data when compared to more traditional methods.
My colleague, Dr Toby Waine, will discuss the role of autonomy in agriculture, focussing on monitoring crops from UAVs and satellite remote sensing, and some thoughts on the future challenges for technology in agriculture, highlighting some of the exciting work he’s done with the drone-enabled data and imagery analytics business Hummingbird Technologies.
Together, we will highlight the myriad implications of these technological advances, helping to answer some key questions for industry and various stakeholders:
- Can autonomous systems decrease the risk in and increase the efficiency of environmental and agricultural task?
- What are the enabling applications that use this new technology?
- What research challenges and opportunities will automation provide?
If you are interested in attending this event, and listening to experts in the field talk about not just the environmental and agricultural autonomous systems capabilities, join us in London, and join the debate on this Great Technology.
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