Geoscience Research Improved by Drones

Geoscience isn’t a new field — it’s defined as the study of the Earth and everything that makes our planet unique in the solar system. We’ve been studying our home planet for centuries, learning how the weather patterns change and affect our people and our crops, choosing the best places to live and selecting the best places to mine salt, stone and metals for use in construction and industry.

Until the Wright Brothers made their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, our geoscience observations were limited to what we could see with our own eyes, exploring the landscape on foot. Until recently, we’ve been limited to what we could see from an airplane — but that is about to change.

How are drones being used in geoscience research, and what does it mean for the future of the field? Here are four examples.

1. Topography Characterization

With traditional geoscience research, scientists still had to analyze and categorize aerial photos, which left them open to interpretation and the ever-present problem of human error. Drones, equipped with high-resolution cameras and programmed with top-of-the-line topographic software, can do more than take pictures of the landscape — they can analyze and label the topography and make the researcher’s job a little bit easier.

It can even be used to study the impacts of climate change in environments that are difficult for humans to reach. Drones have been used recently to examine changes in the surfaces of glaciers, which could help scientists understand the energy balance inside the glaciers that keep these giant sheets of ice frozen.


2. No Fancy Toys

Traditional geoscience equipment, like sonar and LIDAR, are expensive and can be difficult to obtain. For programs on a limited budget, this can make it difficult to get the equipment they need to finish their research.

That’s where drones come in — you can purchase them off the shelf equipped with easily obtainable software for a fraction of the price of traditional hardware. They can also be much easier to use for researchers or individuals without any specialized training — a little practice is all you need to fly a drone in nearly any environment.

3. Researcher Safety

Many of the areas where geoscience research must occur are dangerous or inaccessible to people on foot or in vehicles. Drones can measure volcanic gasses during an eruption or traverse mountains that a person can’t climb without specialized equipment or training.

They can track the movement of an oil slick after a spill or even take samples of oil, water, soil or other mediums for later study — all while keeping the researchers secure and safe on the other end of the remote.

4. Time Lapse Imagery

Not everything geoscientists study happens over prolonged periods of time. For example, spring floods, when the winter snows melt, can occur with little to no warning. Sediment movement in rivers and other water sources can change at any time, and nutrient blooms can happen as soon as the weather starts to warm up.

All of these things teach us about our home planet, but we can’t always be there to observe them. Drones can enable researchers to see these events in real-time, something we haven’t been able to do in the past.

Drones can be a fun tool to play with on a sunny afternoon, but they’re also an invaluable tool for geoscience professionals. As more researchers start to adopt these tools, there’s no telling what kind of discoveries they’ll be able to make. Studying our home planet is a fantastic way to learn not only about the planet that we call home but also about how other planets in the universe might develop life.