Drones are all around us it seems these days, in our neighborhoods, in the news, and even on the job, but what is the environmental impact of all these flying robots? For the sustainability-minded, we want to know how this new technology is going to impact the world around us. Are drones a force for good or harm in our efforts to protect and preserve our natural resources and environment?
In many, many ways, drones offer solutions that can lessen negative human impact on our environment. They can, and already are being used as a tool for good in our efforts to protect our natural environment.
The environmentally friendly uses for drones range across a lot of industries and applications, from influencing the way we operate our major industries in a sustainable way, all the way through to direct efforts in protecting our earth’s natural environments.
It seems that it’s not a matter or whether, but rather of when, drone delivery will become commonplace. The thousands of packages delivered daily by truck have a huge cost in terms of fossil fuel use and carbon emissions. It’s quite clear that drones are an environmentally friendly delivery option, at least for small, lightweight packages. When it comes to heavier packages, however, the environmental cost analysis is less clear.
Also key to this discussion is where and what source delivery drones are using to recharge. In order for battery powered drones to have a green impact, they need to be recharged using renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or nuclear.
As to where they recharge, quadcopter drones have a relatively short flight time and range, so to be used effectively for deliveries, they need to recharge frequently. One solution to this limit is to have more warehouses, but this has an environmental cost of eating up natural habitat land. Deliveries and recharging as part of a tandem operation with delivery trucks is another option, which could help to reduce emissions and fossil fuel use.
Completely aside from the convenience factor, delivery by drone has a lot to be said for it in the question of sustainability, although there are still a number of unresolved questions before it becomes a clear winner in the sustainability arena.
Renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar arrays are a huge step forward in providing green electricity. These structures however have a hidden environmental cost in their production and maintenance. Drones however, can go a long way in helping to mitigate this cost by making the process of installation and inspection easier, safer and faster.
Drones are an ideal tool to perform wind turbine inspections in a fraction of the time, and a fraction of the risk to personnel, than in previous methods of inspection requiring a person in a harness to hang from a cable. Drones can be programmed to fly and capture images of turbine blades, checking for damage or wear, to ensure safe operation and timely repair. This method of inspection helps to make operation of wind farms more cost effective and efficient.
Drones are also ideal for inspection of solar arrays, which can be vast. A drone can quickly cover the entire area and get a much better perspective of the panels than a ground based inspection. Drones can also make use of thermal imaging to detect panels or cells that are not functioning properly for repair or replacement. This type of focused information can help solar arrays keep producing electricity at optimal efficiency.
Modern agriculture is much more than a farmer with a tractor. Advanced technology is behind large-scale farming operations in something called precision agriculture. Drones have an important role to play in helping farmers monitor their crops for optimized productivity. Specialized multispectral imaging cameras can provide information about potential pest problems, irrigation issues and more.
With information provided by aerial imaging, farmers are equipped to target problem areas. This means for instance, if the data shows a problem in over irrigation in one part of a field, and under irrigation in another part of the field, they can correct the irrigation system, preventing the waste of water. Or if a particular type of pest problem is identified in one localized area, the farmer can treat for that type of pest only in the problem area, rather than having to treat the whole field, reducing the use of pesticides which can cause problems for other local flora and fauna. Overall, reducing inputs is both more cost efficient, and ecologically beneficial, and drones can play a huge role in providing the information to enable this to be successful.
Drones are a great tool to be able to create accurate maps of otherwise inaccessible areas. Especially a fixed-wing drone can cover huge areas of land in a short amount of time, and can stay in flight for several hours. This ability to provide images and maps of nature reserves, tropical rainforests, and coastlines provide conservationists with crucial information about the health of these ecosystems. This information in turn can be a major factor in policy making decisions for these areas to help find the best ways to preserve and protect key natural habitats.
Some people have expressed concern that drones in natural areas will disturb the local wildlife, and this is a valid concern. A careless drone pilot that is not paying attention to his or her environment can certainly disrupt and upset animals such as nesting birds, or rutting deer. These concerns notwithstanding, drones have the potential to do a huge amount of good in wildlife protection and conservation efforts.
One major way that drones can aid in wildlife protection is in monitoring endangered species against the threat of poaching. An aerial perspective can spot suspicious activity where there are known poaching operations. A drone can also be used to locate and identify carcasses, which can provide information leading to the disruption of a poaching ring.
Another important use of drones in wildlife conservation efforts is in monitoring and counting populations of endangered species. Uniquely angled photographs, and object recognition abilities allow drones to be used to get more accurate counts of populations from the air than can often be done through traditional ground based methods.
For drought-prone areas, drones can be used to monitor reservoirs and water distribution systems with the use of thermal cameras. Leaks and other inefficiencies can be remedied rapidly with this information. Preventing water wastage can go a long way in preventing drought-related ecological problems.
Drones equipped with specialized cameras and sensors can also be used to monitor weather patterns, soil moisture levels and humidity from transpiration and other sources. This key information can help scientists more accurately predict drought conditions and take necessary precautionary measures.
In the wake of forest fires, or in other forest depleted areas, planting a huge number of trees over vast amounts of land is an enormous, but critical task. New trees need to get started right away to prevent soil erosion, or the encroachment of invasive species of plants.
Drones have been enlisted in the efforts, with great success. In one such project, one drone is sent out to map and assess a given terrain, and create a planting model, identifying locations where trees are most likely to survive. After the survey is complete, a fleet of drones, each carrying one seed “package”, is sent out on autonomous flights to the preselected locations. Seed packages contain a tree seed, fertilizer and ghost pepper to deter rodents or other animals from eating the seeds.
Drones have the advantage over traditional planting methods in their ability to cover more area, to allow for more targeted planting schemes, and to reach more rugged terrain. It is estimated that tree planting by drone can speed up the process by up to three times the ground based method.
Drones are already on their way to becoming an integral part of our daily lives. Soon it will be hard to imagine how we were doing conservation efforts before the time of drones!
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