LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When NASA wanted to take a closer look last month at melting sea ice patterns in the fast-warming Arctic, it turned to an unusual bit of equipment: an eco-drone.
The plane-like device, about the size and weight of a pony and loaded with sensors, was launched at the remote Oliktok Point Long Range Radar Station in northern Alaska, gliding onto the water about 65 km (40 miles) later after its engine lost power.
A week later, near Glover’s Reef off the southern coast of Belize, a much smaller 2.5 kg (5.5 pound) Styrofoam vehicle, resembling an oversized model plane and carrying a small video camera, took off over the open ocean, soaring through winds of 30-40 km per hour (19 to 25 mile per hour).
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are best known for their use in military settings. But scientists and researchers are quickly discovering their value in environmental and conservation projects, from tracking the effects of climate change to monitoring conservation projects.
The Arctic and Belize drone launches represent just a fraction of new projects exploring how drones may contribute to understanding and protecting the environment – and even saving lives.
Drones, for instance, might be used to monitor glacial lake outbursts in the Himalaya, such as the one that contributed to nearly 6,000 deaths in India’s Uttarakhand state in June, and to help provide early warning for surrounding villages. And as more grassroots organizations and researchers get their hands on UAV technology, a much greater range of information on climate threats, and how adaptation and mitigation measures are working, might become available.
The Belize drone was launched as part of Conservation Drones, a non-profit that aims to make drone technology more accessible to conservation workers and researchers. The test flight was aimed at seeing how well a drone could handle high, sustained winds, but the drone soon will help the local fisheries department monitor illegal fishing.
There are many other “eco-drones,” now in the field, with a great variety of designs and uses. Endlessly customizable and increasingly capable, the drones are proving a boon for climate researchers and conservationists alike, offering resource- and time-saving “eye-in-the-sky” technology. Challenges remain in using the drones, but the field is rife with innovation.
WHERE NO PLANE HAS GONE BEFORE
Drones, for instance, can fly over places too dangerous for a manned craft, collecting previously unobtainable information. Already, a variety of drones have entered places where no person has gone before (and lived to tell the tale) – such as the inside of a volcano plume.
That’s where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center is sending a drone called the Dragon Eye. In March, researchers flew it through the sulfur dioxide-rich smoke emitting from Costa Rica’s Turrialba Volcano. The smoke is a fairly benign environment as far as volcano plumes go, but the NASA team says it will continue improving the Dragon Eye’s design until it is capable of going through more intense emissions.
Matt Fladeland, an airborne science manager at Ames, gives the example of the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which forced about 20 countries to close their airspace for a full week in April, and longer in some cases. A manned aircraft couldn’t safely fly through the barrage of ash, fumes and strong winds, but a properly designed drone could.
Similarly, when researchers want to study volcanic emissions, their measurements have until now been taken indirectly – with infrared surveillance, for example. But a drone doesn’t have to stand on the sidelines.
“This is really crucial,” said Fladeland. “This is considered somewhat of a breakthrough, getting in situ data.”
Data from these missions won’t stop volcanic emissions, Fladeland says, but it will help scientists better understand the character and behavior of the plumes. That could help better inform policymakers on how to deal with eruptions, and mitigate environmental hazards like smog for people who live around volcanoes.
Eventually, after sustained measurements have been made, it could even help predict when eruptions might happen, scientists say.
NASA has several other plans for “eco-drone” research, and what they find could have important practical applications. A five-year mission called Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel will send a drone, about half the size of a commercial airplane, directly into hurricanes to explore their inner workings.
Lots of time and money goes into creating better hurricane path predictions every year, Fladeland points out, and this straight-from-the-source data could answer some key questions on hurricane behavior.
Another five-year mission will send several drones into the stratosphere to study the behavior of water vapor. This directly addresses several gaps in knowledge that could help scientists more accurately predict future changes in the stratosphere. That’s important because even small changes in stratospheric humidity can have a significant climate impact.
Projects like these require capable machines, packed with special instruments and featuring the sleek design that many have come to associate with drone technology. But just as exciting are initiatives to put simpler, homemade drones in the hands of local organizations and individual researchers.
Conservation Drones, which launched the UAV in Belize, is the leading initiative working to bring drone technology to environmentalists. It’s a two-man enterprise, run by conservation ecologist Lian Pin Koh and primate biologist Serge Wich. They saw the potential applications of drones for conservationists in the developing world, but found that commercially available UAVs were far too expensive.
The pair didn’t expect big demand for drones when the project started, Wich said. But when word got out on the low-cost model they created, groups around the world – from the World Wildlife Fund to national parks departments – took interest. Conservation Drones now has several different drone models in locations as diverse as the beaches of Gabon and the tundra of Greenland.
Koh and Wich post footage from all their projects: surveys of land burned for oil palm plantations in Indonesia, training sessions at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Odzala National Park, a bird’s-eye view of Belize’s coral reefs.
The pair donate their time to build the customized drones and provide training, with conservation organisations paying only for materials.
Julio Maaz is community fisheries coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Belize, which helped connect Conservation Drones with the country’s fisheries department. One big advantage of using solar-powered drones to monitor illegal fishing, he said, is that “once they’re purchased, the cost of operating them should be nearly zero.”
Right now, one vessel on one patrol round uses about $30 of fuel. That’s not to mention the staff, equipment maintenance, engine repair and possibility of running aground on one of the about 800 reef patches in the area.
Seeing the drones for the first time “was like opening a present for Christmas,” Maaz said. “Even crashing them was exciting, because we could understand what might happen if they weren’t landed properly. I must say that two of the three crash-landed and survived. They’re pretty sturdy.”
Another drone user, Jeff Kerby, a PhD student at Penn State University in the United States, studies the impacts of climate change on herbivore ecology. He took a UAV to his research site in Greenland’s tundra to test how it would perform in a colder environment.
Whenever he showed photos of the drone to other scientists in Greenland, including ice researchers and geologists, “I could see the gears churning,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, man, I could really use that to study ice flow in this fjord, or map out this hill. I didn’t know that was possible.’ It’s a really exciting area to talk about with other scientists.”
THE FUTURE OF ECO-DRONES
The pair of researchers behind Conservation Drones say they are still working to improve the safety and reliability of their drones, to make them as user friendly as possible and to give them new capabilities that users have requested, such as the ability to land on water or fly through a forest without bumping into things.
Another priority is establishing clear rules on using UAVs in regulated airspace. “Drone development is going very fast, and it will go even faster once regulatory framework is a bit clearer for usage of these systems,” Wich said.
There’s another issue for drones, as well – their reputation. “The press around UAVs, using this terrible word ‘drones’, is so focused on the bad things they do, like defense applications,” Fladeland said. “As a practitioner in this field, it frustrates me that the good things are not publicized.”
But some of their new uses may help boost the image of eco-drones. Fladeland points to a partnership between NASA and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that has drones helping firefighters navigate wildfires, and potentially saving lives.
“It’s very important technology,” the NASA manager says. “It’s an exciting new tool in the tool kit, and we want to share it with everyone.”
Erin Berger is an intern reporting on climate change issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.