Drones are formidable tools when it comes to environmental monitoring and other similar tasks related to sustainability. You can affix almost any kind of sensor to them, from thermal imaging equipment to air quality monitors to video cameras. You can also send them into virtually any environment to monitor forests, ocean waters, glaciers and much more.
Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are playing a growing role in sustainability monitoring. Here are seven ways they’re changing the field.
- Expanding Our Reach
Drones enable us to reach places that would otherwise be much more difficult to access due to the landscape or their remoteness.
Some rainforests in places like the Congo, for example, are inaccessible due to thick vegetation and deep swamps. While these barriers prevent human workers or ground-based vehicles from accessing the forest, drones can fly over them to map them, helping conservationists get the information they need to help protect them.
The same principles apply to freezing Arctic environments, scorching deserts, remote islands and more.
Scientists often also use satellites to monitor these types of locations, but drones get footage from much closer, which enables researchers to get more details from their imagery.
- Improving Worker Safety
UAVs also have benefits in conditions where human workers would typically do the monitoring. Sending drones rather than people into potentially dangerous situations can save lives.
A lot of sustainability monitoring involves risks to the workers involved because of the conditions they have to endure, potential accidents and other hazards. For example, workers often need to hang from wind turbines using cables to inspect them. Drones significantly reduce the need for this.
- Integrating Resource Management
Drones are also making it easier to integrate environmental monitoring and resource management. The information UAVs provide can be invaluable when it comes to figuring out how much of a resource is available and how best to use it.
The California Heartbeat Initiative-Freshwater, for example, involves using drones equipped with sensors to collect data on weather, soil moisture and more to predict how hydrological conditions might change in the future. This information enables the affected area to plan appropriately for potential future problems.
- Increasing Efficiency
Drones can also increase the efficiency of sustainability monitoring operations. A UAV can fly over a forest, lake, mountain or anything else much faster than human workers could walk through it and often quicker than vehicles could drive through it on the ground.
UAVs may also be more energy-efficient than other technologies, such as helicopters and trucks, in many situations. Analysts have also determined that, in some cases, delivery drones could be more efficient than the standard fleet of delivery trucks.
- Reducing Costs
This increased efficiency and decreased fuel use, of course, reduce costs. Because you can complete a project more quickly, you need fewer resources overall.
Since the prices of drones have recently fallen to levels that make it reasonable to use them for environmental research and monitoring, they’re now an economical, and potentially even cost-reducing, option.
- Enabling More Consistent Monitoring
UAVs also enable us to conduct more consistent monitoring, because of the ease of deploying them. Getting an accurate picture of how a landscape is changing, for instance, requires you to survey it regularly. Drones make it much more feasible to do this.
This is why scientists are now using drones to monitor shifting coastlines, melting glaciers, changing vegetation and more.
- Enabling Faster Reactions
In some cases, scientists need to react quickly to changing conditions. They might also want to combine monitoring with actions that can help protect aspects of the environment in the moment. Drones allow them to do both of those things.
Chartering a plane to fly above an area can be a time-consuming process, but once scientists get approval to use drones somewhere, they can typically launch them anytime. That makes it easier to react on short notice.
Conservationists can also use drones to monitor wildlife and to scare would-be poachers away, as workers at Liwonde National Park do.
Drones and sustainability might seem like an odd pair, but as it turns out, this technology can do a lot to help with environmental monitoring. The increased use of drones for these purposes is changing the way we monitor sustainability.
Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.