From hand-drawn paper charts to high-resolution aerial photography, we’ve been helping organizations and government agencies track environmental changes and monitor ecosystems for a long time.
The systems that capture and process environmental monitoring data continue to evolve, providing those who can enact positive change with more accurate, actionable insights.
Using drone technology, we can map and survey a variety of environmental factors — land erosion, wildfire risk, invasive species growth, endangered species populations, and more. Organizations can then use the data to make better, more informed decisions that protect humans and nature alike.
In other words, drone technology creates digital environments to help us better understand natural environments.
Combining aerial images with geolocation data like light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and infrared imaging creates more detailed, more accurate representations of the environment. This is key for environmental monitoring, because more accurate data translates to better-informed decisions.
The “Epic Duck Challenge” found that drone-derived data are between 43% and 96% more accurate than human-collected ground counts, so drone technology is essential for gathering accurate, actionable environmental information.
For example, LIDAR technology (which uses laser pulses to collect measurements for 3D models and maps of objects and terrain) can help with coastal erosion monitoring. Drones are used to collect data from very large areas of coastline, allowing scientists to produce high-resolution maps using photogrammetric image processing software.
In a similar vein, Mapware uses drone technology to assist the U.S. Air Force with endangered species conservation and ecosystem health assessment. One of the overall goals of the project is to protect the endangered golden-cheeked warbler by monitoring its natural habitat.
Mapware uses drone technology like digital elevation models, LIDAR, and infrared imaging to create detailed data sets that can then be consulted to help make strategic decisions regarding habitat protection.
Drone technology also allows us to gather environmental information without putting humans (or the environment itself) in harm’s way.
In fragile ecosystems, human disturbance can do unintentional damage. For example, humans may inadvertently disrupt the behavior of endangered species, or introduce pathogens into the environment that can affect wildlife via reverse zoonosis. Drones help researchers avoid doing this kind of harm by putting distance between the humans and the environment they’re examining.
Additionally, without drones, humans often have to navigate dangerous terrain to gather data. Some areas are virtually impossible to reach on foot, and drones offer an alternative way to study them without putting researchers in danger.
The stakes are even higher when trekking through challenging terrain while responding to disasters like oil spills, wildfires, and floods, or tracking heavily armed poachers. In these cases especially, it’s far safer to gather data remotely.
While the use cases for drone-enabled remote sensing and environmental monitoring are promising, there is still a lot of work to be done.
For now, this type of monitoring should be completed with careful planning and oversight by the proper agencies (like the EPA and the U.S. Air Force), not by everyday consumers or activists.
Social implications of drone use, including concerns about privacy, safety, and the psychological well being of both humans and animals, require attention and further investigation as this technology continues to evolve.