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Benefits of Drone Technology in Environmental Management

As the world embraces the need for environmental conservation, ecological maintenance, and placing regulations in the form of environmental protections, companies and organizations turn to technology that makes environmental management easier.

Drones are among these technologies and have been growing in use cases as industries discover new ways to leverage this lightweight technology to their advantage. 

In this article, we’ll cover several ways drones are benefiting the environmental management sector, from topographic mapping used to limit hazardous runoff, to wildlife tracking, to 3D models of geological formations to view change over time. 

Environmental mapping & modeling

Among the most game-changing uses for drones in environmental management, drones can be equipped with payloads that allow users to map features, waterways, ravines, plant health, canopy cover, and more.

Using sensors ranging from standard high-resolution cameras to advanced LiDAR systems, payload-carrying drones benefit companies across multiple industries when attempting to meet environmental regulations, as well as benefiting the organizations who manage and inspect these environments.

Drones are a standard system of mapping land and water in today’s age. Here are a few examples of how this is done.

Mapping land features

Relief Map Using Photogrammetry. Image Credit: Unmanned Aerial Operations

Possibly the most common of the benefits of drones in environmental management is the topographic mapping of features.

Imagine you have a mining company that is beginning mineral extraction out of their surface mine. Ore will be extracted, and the leftover (unused) rock will be placed in what’s called a tailings pile.

A phenomenon called leaching often occurs, where toxic chemicals from the tailings pile will flow downwards, either into a waterway or into a low elevation area. 

The risk of leaching is that if the toxic chemicals reach a waterway, a variety of species, including humans, may suffer from disease if ingested or swam in. 

To limit the severity of the leaching effect, companies and environmental organizations use drones to map the area around the mine to select the area of placement where a tailings pile’s chemicals will present the lowest probability of reaching a waterway.

This is done by using a mapping drone, such as a Phantom 4 RTK or a payload drone, to create a topographic map with contour lines, a relief map, or a combination of the two. 

An area with a low canopy cover is ideal for a drone using a standard RGB camera for mapping. This is called Photogrammetry, the science of extracting measurements from imagery.

Photogrammetry is actually a very accurate form of mapmaking.

The only issue is canopy cover. This is because if there is too much canopy cover, the drone will not be able to map the true topography of the ground but will instead map the elevation of the treetops. 

The solution to this is LiDAR.

A LiDAR unit (in this context) is a system that, like a standard camera, maps an area of land.

Unlike a standard camera that takes hundreds of images to map an area, LiDAR uses lasers to penetrate the canopy and reach the ground, revealing the true elevation of the ground.

Once the map is made, engineers and environmental scientists will be able to identify waterways and determine the least impactful placement of the tailings pile. 

Canopy Mapping 

Canopy Mapping Model. Image Credit: Unmanned Aerial Operations

Common in forestry, drones are being used to map the canopy cover of forests.

As discussed above, the canopy isn’t often penetrated by standard cameras, while LiDAR does a fantastic job of canopy penetration.

Using drones with a high-end camera for photogrammetry, drones can map the canopy cover of an area.

This is done by measuring the area of the entire region, then measuring the areas where the camera was able to see the ground.

Taking the area of the visible ground and dividing it by the whole area will give you the percentage of the visible ground in the area. The percentage left is the canopy cover.

The importance of canopy cover when looking through the lens of environmental management is that when the canopy cover is high, effects such as low undergrowth occur.

This means that animals who live in the short undergrowth of a forest are not likely to be present here.

The downside of having high undergrowth is that wildfires are more likely. There are different regions where high undergrowth is more of a risk.

Areas like Southern California, where there is little humidity, have an increased risk if large amounts of undergrowth are present.

Alternatively, tree species play a factor in the amount of undergrowth. Pine species have less canopy cover than other species and are often surrounded by undergrowth. 

Drones are not only able to map the amount of canopy cover but even the actual tree species that make up the canopy.

Having a diverse forest is good for wildlife as well as the health of the forest on the whole, and environmental scientists are able to analyze massive tracts of land with drone mapping technology.

3D Modeling for geologic structures

Depression Next to Cliff. Image Credit: Unmanned Aerial Operations

Part of Environmental Management is observing and maintaining geologic structures. 

Drones have been and are being used to create models on a regular basis of the same structure to show how different mountains, cliffs, and faults are changing. 

Understanding risk areas for avalanches, mass wasting, mudflows, and fault activity can be seen when visualized as a model.

Drones use photogrammetry to create the model from data collected on the flight.

The scan of the feature creates a point cloud, which is best explained as thousands, even millions of dots that make up a structure in the model.

It’s similar to how atoms make up matter in the real world.

From the point cloud, geologists and environmental scientists can take measurements of the slope and volume of a peak, and compare current models to older models to view change.

This is extremely important to understand how humans are impacting the environment.

If a slope is logged, earth becomes loose. This can lead to a landslide if certain actions are not taken.

With a 3D model extracted from a drone’s scan of the feature, environmental management is able to locate where to place preventive measures, such as netting, walls, and more.

Plant health mapping

Plant Health Map of Nature Preserve. Image Credit: Unmanned Aerial Operations

Plant health mapping with drones is a massive benefit to the field of environmental management.

Pilots will need a drone that can sense and take images in the RGB spectrum, near infrared, or multispectral. 

After the pilot has designed his automated flight, the drone will fly with no user input necessary.

The drone will fly in a grid formation over the tract of land, taking hundreds to thousands of images. These images will be taken by the pilot and then put in a mapping engine.

An orthomosaic is an image combination that contains metadata, such as the geographic location, RGB reflectivity, and elevation of the ground surface in relation to the camera.

Not only can this be effective over land, but using these drone-derived plant health maps can show where algae blooms are concentrated and are forming.

Sometimes algae is a good thing. However, in lakes or ponds harboring fish, the algae can use large amounts of oxygen in the water, creating an environmental disaster.

Fish breathe oxygen, just not in the air. Without enough oxygen in the water, large amounts of fish will die.

Monitoring plant health can help environmental scientists to assess the health of an area. However, it can also be useful for identifying deficiencies in soil nutrients.

The appearance of stressed plants is evident on plant health maps due to their excessively red appearance. The soil will need to be tested by environmental scientists.

A blight is another factor that can cause a reddened area on a plant’s health map.

Blight is a serious problem that can lead to the destruction of an entire ecosystem. Blights can infect crops and other plants and spread to others.

The serious nature of these diseases cannot be understated, as the Chestnut Blight of 1904 killed millions of trees in a short period. 

Using this beneficial drone technology, environmental scientists are able to get ahead of issues that can be detrimental to an ecological community or plant species as a whole.

Wildlife tracking

Understanding how animals interact with their environment is crucial to managing an area properly. Using drones, environmental scientists are able to view animals in their everyday lives in a non-invasive way.

With drones becoming quieter and smaller, the animals may not even take notice of the drone, and if they do, they may assume it’s a bird. 

On a grander scale, mass migrations of animals in the southwestern areas of the United States and the plains of Africa are able to be viewed with drones.

Understanding routes that animals take allow environmental scientists to create safe zones for animals to travel on these migrations. 

If a town, development, or village was built in the middle of a migration route, this could cause the animals to end up in a different area or, worse, never make it at all.

Animals being where they have been for thousands of years is important because ecosystems rely on this continuous cycle to thrive.

For instance, if a group of prey animals does not migrate for a season, their predators will have to seek a new food source.

This throws off the balance of the ecosystem. This imbalance has caused attacks on humans in the past when predators are desperate.

Solutions to developments and roadways intersecting with animal migrations are as innovative as they are helpful.

A popular solution is the animal crossing / bridge / highway.

With drones, aerial imagery can be useful in determining the placement of these animal crossings. 

Wildlife inspections

Wildlife Inspection of Osprey Nest. Image Credit: Unmanned Aerial Operations

Similar to the use listed above, drone pilots are using drones to inspect and verify the position of an animal.

This is different from wildlife tracking, as that is more about the movements of a group of animals, while wildlife inspections are more aimed toward the position of a single animal or small group of animals.

Laws and regulations, as briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article, play a large part in forcing companies to turn to drones to inspect the environment and declare that wildlife won’t be affected.

Most of these wildlife inspections occur when developers are attempting to create a new development but are unsure if an endangered species is present.

For instance, an old baseball stadium is scheduled for demolition. However, officials have spotted two large birds living in a massive nest on top of one of the stadium lights. The birds are suspected to be ospreys, and it’s mating season.

The concern here is that legislation declares that if this species has laid eggs in a nest, the developers can not continue demolition until the eggs have hatched and the hatchlings reach a certain age. 

The developers would contact a drone pilot to conduct a wildlife inspection in order to find out whether or not the ospreys have laid eggs.

The drone pilot would keep a safe distance as the drone ascended to the nest, and then the pilot would snap pictures from all angles.

If there are eggs shown in the images, developers will have to wait.

Environmental management is changing with drones

With the population increasing and cities expanding, the need for proactive environmental management becomes crucial.

Drones and their pilots are assisting environmental scientists, geologists, developers, and governments in making sure a healthy environment is sustained, and in some cases, created. 

We learn more and more every year about the world around us, and drones are giving us a new perspective.

The benefits drones have for environmental management are many and could continue to grow as payload capacity increases and smaller gear is able to be attached to the UAVs. 

Time will tell if scientists / pilots / developers using drones in environmental management will grow, but right now, we know that it is increasing the speed at which projects can be completed.

It’s also allowing for proactive interventions in plant diseases and other ecological issues, and it allows for an insight into wildlife’s movements and locations.

It seems likely that drones will continue to benefit environmental management.

References:
Unmanned Aerial Operations (link)