Drones are a touchy subject. The FAA has started regulating larger ones, while people either love them for their utility or hate them because they can be used to breach privacy by spying on people with their attached cameras. What most people often forget is that drones can also be used as a fantastic scientific tool. How are citizen scientists benefiting from drones, and how can these little devices be used to advance scientific discoveries?

Noninvasive Conservation

Conservation is the practice of protecting animals in their native habitat. The problem is that we tend to make our mark pretty much everywhere we step. Drones are being used to aid the conservation of creatures like orangutans by observing them in their natural habitat without interfering with their development. They may have even discovered some new populations of the great apes in Sumatra, which could indicate the wild population is starting to recover.

It can be tricky though, as the Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands found out when its resident chimpanzee population used a stick to take out a drone that was being used to observe their behavior.

On a smaller scale, cities are asking volunteers in their areas to report animal sightings to give conservationists an accurate picture of local populations. Drones are the perfect tool for this because they don’t tend to scare away the animals like a hiker might. Water-friendly drones can be used to survey lakes and rivers to record populations and look for problems.

Recovery and Repair

The climate is changing and we’re still learning to adapt to the hot summers, brutal rainy seasons and harsh droughts that have started cropping up in the last few years. While we can watch floods as they roll in and roll out, we miss a lot of what these weather patterns have to tell us by looking at them from ground level.

Drone footage, from professional drones and those owned by hobbyists, can help create 3-D models of floods and newly changing flood planes to help environmental agencies predict future flooding. Not only could these models save lives, but they could also be used to determine areas that are most at risk, so homes and businesses can be reinforced or relocated.

Meteorological Marvels

Meteorology is something that most of us overlook as nothing more than the contents of the Weather Channel, but drones are quickly turning hobbyists into citizen scientists. Drones are indispensable tools that enable researchers to study the ocean and atmospheric interactions from a bird’s eye view.

Drones are capable of taking high-resolution video and images from a high altitude. While we can do this with a plane or helicopter, drones are much less resource-intensive and can be operated with a minimum of experience. Anyone with a drone and a smartphone can take these images, submit them to research stations around the globe and contribute without needing a degree.


Drones are seen as a tool by others and as a toy by many, but they are quickly becoming invaluable tools to help researchers around the world. These drones can collect information that would be out of reach for anyone without easy access to a helicopter. These handy little robots may even be able to collect information autonomously in the future, but for now, large drones are required to be within sight of their operators for safety reasons.

While citizen scientists will never replace their counterparts with degrees, they can provide reams of data that would take an individual scientist months or years to collect.