wind turbines

Drones Will Help Save The Environment. Here’s How:

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.

Fuel consumption by vehicle

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Transportation Statistics 2004 (air, waterborne, rail); Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics 2003 (truck)

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.

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

solar panels

Aerial photo of a solar panel Installation in Lake Elsinore, CA.

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.

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.

 

About the Author

Adam Shore

Adam is a Central Florida alum who recently left the Orlando area to relocate to Denver, where he enjoys shooting aerial photography of the Rocky Mountains. And to ski. He is a member of the AMA and was been a drone photographer since the early days of the industry. Follow him @dronegenuity.

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