Mainstream media often portrays unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, as mass surveillance machines sent into warzones. This coverage often neglects to mention their growing significance to environmental research. The Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary believes that drones will open up a new world of possibilities for researchers.
“Over the next several years, we anticipate a surge in the application of unmanned aircraft systems for a broad suite of Earth and environmental issues,” says assistant professor and Cenovus research chair Chris Hugenholtz of the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS). “As an Earth scientist, I have often craved a bird’s-eye view of my research site to supplement or enhance measurements made on the ground,” says Hugenholtz. “Drones can make that possible and can transform many facets of Earth and environmental research.”
Over the past decade, eco-drones have allowed scientists and environmentalists to capture images, survey natural disasters and monitor illegal resource extraction activities. These data sets are used to set policies and establish strategies in disaster risk management and mitigation plans. In addition, they allow scientist to monitor environmental factors like river erosion and agricultural patterns. A significant advantage offered by drones is related to risk management; drones allow scientists to collect data from dangerous environments without risking personal safety.
For instance, in 2004 the US Geological Survey (USGS) experimented with drones while surveying activity at Mount St. Helen. They demonstrated that machines can be effectively used to capture qualitative data in hard to reach places. The drones were able to capture data in an environment rife with volcanic ash and sulfur. Since this successful project, developers have reduced the size of cameras, heat sensors and have also simultaneously developed more acute navigational and control systems.
Regardless of the advantages, the use of drones can add a significant cost to research projects. In the United States, expenses can range anywhere from $10,000 to $350,000. As a result, many research institutions weigh the cost-benefit before committing to use. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is evaluating whether it is more appropriate to pay for a silent drone rather than a helicopter when surveying bird species.
Despite the costs, ecologist Greg Asner recently made use of drones and was able to explore and capture ecosystems with high-resolution 3-D spectral and laser imaging technology. He was able to identify carbon stocks in the Amazon, Peru, and Panama in efforts to reduce climate change. The diverse landscapes and ecosystems make areas like these ideal for research. This type of surveillance research is used to measure and create strategies that reduce emissions causes by deforestation.
“If you don’t know where the carbon is how can you know what you’re losing?” says Asner. Drones serve as a technology that assists with airborne as well as ground surveillance, and are able to transmit messages back to science labs. They are also fly at lower altitudes than manned aircraft or satellites, making them ideal for research in tropical areas where clouds sometimes interfere with satellite imagery.
“Technology is absolutely critical to managing our planet,” says Asner. “But, even more important is the understanding and wisdom to apply it."