In case you haven’t looked around lately, we are living in the future. We have self-driving cars, video-chat devices that fit in our back pockets, as well as robots that vacuum our floors and mow our lawns. We are, in a way, living lives that look like something out of a 1950s science fiction magazine. One of the innovations with the most potential, though, are unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. These unmanned aircraft began life as military tools, but now they’re something anyone can use. While there are plenty of people who use them for personal entertainment, and for making amusing YouTube videos, these small, flying robots have a world of potential that we’re only just starting to tap into.
They can, in a very real sense, change the world as we know it.
Drones have already had a big impact in several fields. They’ve been used for intelligence gathering, they’ve been used in filmmaking, and they’ve been the holiday season’s must-have toy. But drones can do, and be, so much more. Here are five major ways drones are rewriting the rules when it comes to protecting the environment.
1. Transportation and Delivery
We’ve all heard about Amazon wanting to enlist drones in order to deliver its products straight to customers’ doors without the need of trucks and drivers. That sounds like a great idea, especially for those of us who’d like to get our stuff as quickly as possible, but how much will it really cut down on the environmental costs we’re looking at right now?
That’s a difficult question to answer completely. Because, as the Federal Highway Administration points out in this study, the environmental costs of transportation are spread over several areas. The major areas are rail, highway, and air. While air transportation is the smallest area in terms of demand, the effects of emissions from airplanes (especially nitrogen oxides, commonly referred to as Nox) have a disproportionate effect on the environment because they’re released so high in the atmosphere.
So how exactly will drones transform the transportation industry? In the intermediate term, drones will be used to quickly deliver products that can be transported between short distances. Think about the average distance for a pizza delivery, for example. These deliveries will soon be made not by exhaust-coughing cars and trucks, but by battery powered drones. This will cut down on the amount of smaller road deliveries, and it will mean there will be fewer trucks on the road. So, rather than eliminating the pollution from air cargo, drones will cut into the pollution caused by trucks. Drones do have relatively small payloads, though, which limits their carrying capacity. It makes them ideal for small deliveries, or for dropping off emergency supplies, but not for bulk transport.
Of course, as the technology evolves, drones will be able to carry larger loads over greater distances. This could have a massive impact, given that drones tend to run on battery power. If those batteries are charged with green energy, the substantial amount of carbon emitted from commercial and industrial transportation will be significantly reduced. This reduction will go a long ways toward fighting the rapid advance of climate change.
The use of #drones will fight #climatechange by substantially reducing carbon emitted from commercial & industrial transportation. @dronegenuity
2. Wildlife Conservation
Drones can do a lot to help preserve our natural spaces. Drones can monitor large swaths of territory with ease, which means there’s less impact on the area since no people have to make the trek. Even better, drones provide an aerial bird’s-eye view, which means issues that wouldn’t be visible from the ground will be readily apparent.
Drones can be used to track animals, particularly dangerous animals, without putting anyone at risk. They can also be used to watch for poachers and trespassers, increasing security in areas where there’s simply too much ground to cover. Additionally, drones can be used to provide aid when natural disasters strike. Whether it’s to comb an area after an earthquake or flood to look for survivors, or fighting fires by delivering payloads, drones are a powerful tool in the fight to keep wildlife, and wild areas, safe.
3. Monitoring and Inspection of Solar Panels, Wind Turbines & Oil Pipelines
It’s not enough to just build things like wind turbines, oil pipelines, solar panels, or high-voltage power lines. Once those things have been built, they have to be monitored and inspected with a fair bit of regularity. At least, if you want to avoid serious problems, and breakdowns that can have disastrous consequences.
The issue we’ve had to deal with until recently is that monitoring and inspecting these structures takes time, and manpower. Getting someone to climb to the top of a wind turbine, and then to inspect it, is a dangerous endeavor. It’s also something that can take a lot of time. The same is true when it comes to walking the full length of an oil pipeline, or getting up near power lines to inspect them for fraying or damage. The job still needs to be done, but with drones it can be done safely, and in a fraction of the time.
There’s no need to deploy heavy trucks, and to spend countless man hours in review when a drone can skip along a line, or fly right up to a mechanism, to see whether it needs work. When it does, actual people will still have to come do it, but the sheer amount of time and effort drones can save is rather staggering.
4. Sustainable Agriculture & Crop Monitoring
As Gizmodo pointed out, drones are a big boon to farmers who want to try to look at the big picture when it comes to their farms. Because traditional farms tend to cover so much space, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on from the ground. Aerial surveying services can help farmers figure out what’s going on with their fields, and it can provide maps that can then be used when making plans for the next growing season.
There are many new software tools that accompany drones to help with NDVI mapping. NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) is a simple graphical indicator that can be used to analyze remote sensing measurements to assess whether the target being observed contains live green vegetation or not. Healthy vegetation (or chlorophyll) reflects more near-infrared (NIR) and green light compared to other wavelengths. This data is captured using drone cameras and imported into an application such as Drone Deploy to create graphical representations. Farmers and agricultural workers can then simply access the map to determine the overall health of vegetation on a given farm and direct workers to the crops needing the most attention and care.
Additionally, drones can be used to deliver important materials to crops. Instead of using planes for crop dusting, for instance, drones can make short runs to leave the necessary additives behind. They’re small, fast, and flexible, which allows them to fulfill a number of different jobs in any agricultural setup.
5. Land Management
One of the biggest struggles people have had to deal with is being limited in our perspective when it comes to land. Aerial surveying is a delicate art, and it’s difficult to imagine the finished product when it comes to building, or to altering land. Drones can make this entire process that much easier. When seen from the air, a finished product becomes easier to visualize. Problem areas can be quickly identified, and a drone can be used to create 3D maps, and to record GPS coordinates for easy tracking. There’s no need to deploy a team on-site when much of the work can be done from the air. Especially when drones can handle many of the tasks more quickly, thanks to on-board computers and software.
Viral YouTuber Jimmy Donaldson, more popularly known by his channel name MrBeast, was challenged by his followers to plant 20 million trees to celebrate reaching 20 million subscribers. Instead of shying away from the daunting challenge, Donaldson embraced it. He partnered with fellow YouTuber and former NASA engineer Mark Rober. Together, they worked with the Arbor Day Foundation to create a campaign called #TeamTrees where every dollar donated would plant one tree.
Where drones come into play is with the actual planting of the trees. Planting trees is a labor intensive process, requiring planters to dig a hole, situate the sapling, and firmly repack the soil. While Donaldson and his followers physically planted 1,700 trees in a single day in his video announcing the campaign, Mark Rober had a different idea.
Rober flew to Washington state to meet with DroneSeed, a drone company specializing in drone reforestation. They produce their own large UAVs specifically designed to plan trees over large areas efficiently, rapidly, and in ways designed to maximize the survivability and success rate of the seeds.
First, DroneSeed sends out one drone to perform a 3D scan of the terrain. Software analyses the terrain data and determines the best locations to place seeds for the optimal survival rate. Flight paths are created, and then another fleet of drones fly autonomously on the flight paths while dispensing DroneSeed’s proprietary seed vessels. The each vessel contains a combination of seeds optimal for the location, fertilizer, and a ghost pepper to deter squirrels, mice, and other rodents from eating the seeds.
Using drones to plant seeds has numerous advantages. In his video, Mark explains how just three drones can plant an area six times faster than a normal planting crew. Drones are also able to access harsh terrain unaccessible to humans and enable a much faster response time. In areas recently affected by forest fires, planting tree seeds quickly is crucial to preventing tall shrubs from taking over the area.
Jimmy Donaldson and Mark Rober’s #TeamTrees campaign is still going on. They are trying to raise $20 million to plant 20 million trees, where $1 = 1 tree. You can choose to donate to their campaign at teamtrees.org.
The Sky Is No Longer The Limit
Drones have become new tools in the fight to preserve the environment. Because if we can use the smartest, most efficient, and environmentally friendly tools we have to reduce our waste, and curb our emissions, then we may be able to start undoing the damage we’ve done over the years. It won’t happen overnight, but the journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step taken in the right direction.