An aerial perspective is an asset. The ability to see on a larger scale and in different contexts provides better data which leads to better decisions. Environmental organizations are one beneficiary of aerial data. The areas they monitor are vast and often inaccessible. Traditional aerial platforms like airplanes and helicopters, however, come with a significant price tag.
Fortunately, an alternative solution has recently emerged—drones. Drones provide the same advantage as manned aircraft, but at a fraction of the price. As UAS platforms increase in capabilities, they have found themselves on the frontline of environmental efforts. Lower acquisition, operating, and training costs put these powerful tools in the hands of more researchers. The resulting data is building a better understanding of our complex environment.
Collecting biological samples from whales has been a difficult venture. In the past, researchers have used a crossbow to gather health data on the whale. It was an invasive and inconsistent process.
One researcher with Ocean Alliance came up with a better albeit rudimentary alternative. Attaching several Petri dishes to a DJI Inspire drone, Dr. Iain Kerr flew into the whale spout as it breached the surface. In doing so, some of the snot droplets landed in the dishes. These snot samples provide important information about the health of the whale and the environment around it. With this data, along with photos, researchers have a complete picture of the whales.
Dubbed “Snotbot,” the sample-collecting drone is the centerpiece of the researchers’ efforts to accurately monitor the health of the local whale population. The greater frequency of sample collections leads to more detailed models of the predictions of this fragile population. What was once a difficult effort, is now an efficient and routine practice.
The challenging logistics of monitoring wildlife are not limited to whales; researchers keeping tabs on penguin populations in Antarctica face similar issues. Researcher Annie Schmidt was finding it difficult to conduct studies with traditional methods. Helicopters, were intrusive, their noise footprint often driving penguins away from their nests. Keeping their distance meant they were too far away to make an accurate count. Then there was the cost of operating helicopter flights.
Fortunately for Schmidt, an introduction to Mac Schwager, a Stanford aeronautics professor, opened the door to a new solution. He proposed using drones, an inexpensive, non-intrusive, monitoring solution. After securing funding, the team went to work. They quickly realized that one drone would take too long to document a large penguin population. The solution? Use multiple drones simultaneously.
Engineers at Stanford developed a complex algorithm that breaks up a selected survey area into sections according to the number of drones used. This video shows the program planning the most efficient flight, avoiding collision with the other aircraft. Using this technology, researchers can cover vast rookeries in a short time, stitching all the photographs later to create a unified picture of the penguins. Population size and other data are collected and analyzed.
Particular ecosystems require special attention from environmental researchers. Agriculture, glaciers, rainforests, and other habitats are especially sensitive to the changing temperatures and human activity.
To document the impact, researchers are using UAVs for surveying and mapping these areas. Taking multiple images of the same location over a period of time enables change detection. The software compares the pictures and shows the resulting impact. A thermal drone can document the changes in average temperature in a certain location. Photogrammetry software, using data captured by drones, recreates 3D models of landscape in Iceland to track environmental impact, for example.
The sheer size of these impacted areas requires an aerial perspective to monitor effectively. A turn-key solution for scientists, drones are far more accessible than a number of traditional platforms. More importantly, they have access to a greater amount of data for more accurate models.
We are familiar with the ways unmanned aircraft have revolutionized industries. But while we look forward to drones delivering our groceries, we overlook the technology employed to help our environment. This application may not benefit us directly, but the understanding it provides of our world is critical for our future.