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Using drone technology to conserve the environment

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are no longer just for military use. In fact, drones for civilian use vastly outnumber those being used by the military. The civilian population uses drones for photography, agricultural applications, and product delivery, while in the field of science, drones are being used more and more to help conserve the environment.

Mapping Coral Reefs

With the affordability of drones for commercial and civilian use, scientists are using drones instead of previously used technologies to understand coral reefs and their ecosystem better. Drones allow scientists to conduct reef population surveys, understand how reefs change over time, determine how coral reefs react to climate change, and ascertain how pollution affects the reefs. Researchers can also measure the condition and structure of various reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In the past, scientists relied on technologies such as underwater photography, which can be costly and time-consuming, or satellite technology, which has poor resolution, for mapping coral reefs. Now with drone technology, scientists from all over the world can study the changing environment of these precious corals, especially those living at shallow depths, which are also the reefs most likely to experience environmental stress. Drones are cheaper and provide researchers with better detail.

Courtesy: Cool Green Science

Replanting Forests

As with employing drone technology to study coral reefs, environmentalists have turned to drones for reforestation because it is cheaper and more efficient than their previous methods. Reforestation companies estimate that a single drone has the potential to plant 100,000 trees per day, with one drone engineer able to oversee six drones.

DroneSeed, a company based in Seattle, WA, claims to have the “first FAA-approved swarms for spraying.” This company uses drones to plant seeds, deliver water, and spray herbicides and fertilizers for the trees.

DroneSeed is not the only company or organization focused on reforestation using drones. BioCarbon Engineering and the Worldview International Foundation, a nonprofit, worked in Myanmar last year to replant the mangroves that the area relies on for protection from hurricanes and providing a habitat for fish. Using the drones, the WIF planted approximately 1 million hectares of mangroves. The Foundation uses the drones to map the area, determine soil quality, identify the best locations for planting trees, and establish which trees to plant. Then another group of drones disperses the seeds forcefully to ensure the seeds take root.

Using Drones to Combat Poachers in Africa

Conservationists in Africa utilize drones primarily to try and deter poachers. Poaching of animals for parts, such as ivory from rhinos and elephants, is big business in Africa. Poachers are part of international organized crime syndicates who traffic animals much like other criminals traffic drugs and weapons.

In recent years, the World Wildlife Fund and Google, and have donated money to conservation efforts in Africa using drones to analyze and thwart poaching behavior. However, using drones to combat poaching may not yield the promising results that it has with tree repopulation and coral reef mapping.

Identifying and catching poachers is a complicated process—one that involves much more than a drone and its pilot. The drones involved are typically fitted with thermal imaging cameras or infrared technology so that they may be used at night because that is when poachers are most likely to target animals. This additional equipment makes the drones much heavier. Furthermore, conservation drones required extended battery life, and they are difficult to operate in harsh weather or rough terrain. These factors make the cost of conservation drones rather expensive at $50,000 to upwards of $250,000 each, and when they crash, you have just lost an expensive piece of equipment.

Moreover, the drone pilot needs to collaborate with local park rangers to try and catch poachers once spotted with a drone. Catching the poachers requires experienced, equipped, and ready rangers. Finally, in Africa, there has not been much cooperation, especially from the government. Kenya and Namibia have banned the use of drones.

Using drone technology to conserve the environment
Biodegradable Drone Courtesy: NASA

Biodegradable Drones – Drones of the Future?

Want to view something or deliver something via drone and worried that the wrong person could get their hands on it? Or that the crash could adversely affect the environment? Well, worry no longer. There are now two types of biodegradable drones to choose from: cardboard and microbe.

Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions, or ASPARA, created a biodegradable, one-time use, cardboard drone through DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources program (VAPR). ASPARA plans for their drones to assist with deliveries of supplies or medication to remote areas. These drones can be launched from a ship or plane and will degrade within a few days.

A team of scientists from NASA and Stanford created a drone with a fungus, mycelium to be exact, chassis, and a body made of wasp’s spit. Although the drone’s motors and propellers are not biodegradable, the scientists are hoping someday the might be.

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