Five ways drones are being used to help the environment

With Amazon set to step up drone technology tests in UK airspace under its plans for unmanned delivery aircraft, edie investigates the potential implications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for green business and the environment.

The use of drone technology has been steadily expanding across commercial, scientific and recreational fields in recent years, with the use of UAV ranging from surveillance and search & rescue operations through to aerial photography, surveying and digital communications.

It is not difficult to understand why drones have so quickly swarmed into the mainstream – they’re lightweight, low-cost, require little preparation or infrastructure, and – crucially, from an environmental perspective – no fuel.

The approval from the Government to lift strict flying restrictions for unmanned delivery aircraft was another major turning point; taking Amazon founder Jeff Bezos a step closer to his dream of fleets of drones delivering small packages directly to shoppers within 30 minutes.

That announcement caused quite the stir among both the general public and civil liberty groups, however. Opinion seems to be split between those that are excited by the concept and those that are horrified at the thought of flying robots and the potential privacy implications.

But what does all of this mean for the environment? And could drones be used to support low-carbon, resource-efficient business models? edie has rounded-up five case studies which demonstrate the positive impact UAVs could have on our planet.

1) Aerial mapping & nature monitoring

Drones are ideal for mapping – a 5kg drone can fly for several hours and send back pictures with a pixel resolution of up to one metre. Hovering at a height of only 200 metres, the potential issue of cloud cover obscuring the ground is virtually eliminated. A drone can provide crystal-clear images of any tropical rainforest or conserved wetland during any single day of the year.

UAVS can also carry meteorological equipment like wind gauges, thermometers, humidity and pressure sensors to collect climate data from regions across the globe. As such, the technology is currently being used for mapping the inaccessible rainforests of the Congo and Suriname to adress complex conservation issues that lie at the interface of ecology and social change.

Drones from various small companies have been contracted out to map lava flows in Hawaii; water reserves around the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, and even an ancient peat bog in Switzerland – allowing conservationists to restore it.

2) Renewable energy maintenance

Gone are the days when inspecting wind turbines was undergone by hooking people up to wires and hanging them off of wind turbines. Renewable energy companies can now use small drones to send back real-time videos of power cables; 3D images of turbine blades, and even HD live video of hydro-electric dam walls, in order to inspect for damage at minimal environmental and monetary cost.

Last month in North America, DroneDeploy – a cloud software platform provider for commercial drones – and DJI – a leading maker of drones and camera technology – forged a partnership that is expected to dramatically increase the efficiency of solar panel installation and inspection using drone-based thermal imagery capture and analytics.

With a few taps on a smartphone, solar installers can automatically fly the drone and collect data that is sent to DroneDeploy’s cloud-based infrastructure. The technology reduces the amount of time workers spend on roofs, reduces the potential for measurement errors, and simplifies the maintenance of existing systems – all of which should help drive down the installed cost for rooftop solar.

In one related, but very bizaare, instance (video below), a drone pilot monitoring wind turbines in America’s Rhode Island captured video of a man sunbathing on top of a 200 ft. tall turbine. The man pleasantly waves at the drone, before continuing to sunbathe.

3) Disaster relief

Unmanned vehicles are increasingly being used to assess, prevent and even combat environmental disasters. By gathering information from across an affected area, the vehicles can build a picture of the situation and give recommendations for how people should direct their resources to mitigate damage and save lives.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the South East coast of the Philippines in 2013, senseFly drones were used to create detailed 2D base maps and 3D terrain models of local boroughs and to assess typhoon damage and plan shelter reconstruction. Leaders were provided with physical high-res maps that they could use to assess the damage and plan reconstruction efforts based on the current, accurate data. Without the drone data, this would not have been possible.

The US Department of Agriculture has used UAVs to fight forest fires in California – which have picked up0 this week – while drones in China monitor motorways prone to landslides for minute cracks and fissures indicative of an imminent disaster, and alert authorities upon discovering one.

4) Protecting wildlife

Drones are a great tool for monitoring a species’ population and determining its range, and can stop poachers before they strike by pinpointing their locations.

Drones are monitoring seabirds in Australia. They’ve saved Tanzanian Chimpanzees and Sumatran Orangutans, and counted seals in Canada and green turtles in Indonesia. The WWF and Brazilian Police are even using them to track poachers and illegal loggers.  

In some cases, drones are even able to identify ailing trees – in America, trees suffering from ‘ash dieback’ were mapped and spotted by drone aircraft before being treated. Drone start-up Drones Over Water have developed a nimble quadcopter that can sip up water samples from potentially dangerous water sources in hard-to-access locations and bring it back to be tested for infectious diseases.

5) Agricultural sustainability solutions

Drones are gradually replacing more gas-guzzling machines on farms and agricultural land. UAVs can become precision agricultural instruments, spraying plants in such a way that it reduces fertiliser use by 20% – conserving an important hydrocarbon-infused resource, and protecting the environment from pollution in the process.

UAV are also now becoming an invaluable tool by farmers in other aspect of farming, such as monitoring livestock, crops and water levels. High-res images can provide detailed information on crop health, improving yield and reducing input cost. Sophisticated UAV have also been used to create 3D images of the landscape to plan for future expansions and upgrading.

A research team at Timiryazev State Agrarian University in Moscow recently used a farming drone to capture high-res imagery for a wheat fertilisation project. They then used this imagery to create a custom application map with which to optimise their nitrogen application, leading to a 20% reduction in nitrogen.

George Ogleby & Cameron Joshi

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