- Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) facilitate research and conservation work with their speed of travel, unique birds-eye viewpoint, automated programmable flight, and ability to access difficult terrain and sensitive species.
- Engineers and biologists are working together to apply these features of UAVs to solve research and management challenges and obtain valuable information that may otherwise be inaccessible.
- We present 10 of these creative applications of UAVs here, and we welcome user stories of others.
Once solely in the realm of advanced militaries, unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. unmanned aircraft systems, or drones) are increasingly popular among a wide range of people, including field biologists and conservation teams.
They take amazing aerial photos of the natural world, as the clear birds-eye view that a drone-borne camera can provide is unmatched. Increasingly, conservation and research projects across the globe are moving beyond photography and are using UAVs in innovative ways.
Several features of drones have facilitated or improved traditional research, conservation, and management techniques:
- the relative speed of travel to reach a target location
- the birds-eye view that provide unique perspectives of even familiar places
- the programmed, automated flight that facilitates precise movements and repeat visits to exact locations
- the access they provide to sensitive species and difficult or dangerous terrain.
As inspiration, and recognizing there are many more innovative uses than can be presented in any one post, here are 10 novel or unusual applications that innovative scientists, engineers, and field teams are either testing or employing, generally with small, affordable multi-rotor or fixed-wing UAVs.
1. Mapping and fighting wildfires – Costa Rican firefighters are testing the capacity of small multi-rotor UAVs for mapping and fighting wildfires more safely and efficiently. Monitoring speed and direction of fires from a safe distance will greatly assist the management of dry forest ecosystems. Fire crews can also fly UAVs with thermal sensors over a fire zone to monitor radiant heat in soil, as fire can smolder even after the initial blaze has been put out.
A team at the University of Nebraska is also trying to develop a UAV that will start controlled burns to help restrain wildfire movement, as creating them from the ground is dangerous to firefighters who are directly in the line of the fire. A UAV is flown close to the fire and drop small capsules in precise locations. Those capsules self-ignite and start a small controlled burn, while firefighters focus on identifying key burn locations and deploying the UAV from a safe distance.
2. Planting trees — Given the damage to trees from natural and man-made disasters, the BioCarbonEngineering company is combining UAVs and 3D maps to plant trees faster and more cheaply than can be done by hand. Spreading dry seeds aerially has had mixed success, but the ability to program a precise flight pattern allows the UAV to plant seeds in exact locations to improve their germination success and then monitor them afterwards. The aim of the program is industrial-scale reforestation and restoration; the mapping-planting-monitoring combination continues its testing phase.
3. Viewing canopy structure – In areas of existing forest, the Organization for Tropical Studies is creating imagery unattainable on foot that when compiled could serve as a low-cost alternative to LiDAR to view and quantify forest canopy structure. Software can integrate thousands of images taken from UAV flights with a digital terrain model to create a 3D model and generate canopy height measurements. The technique may facilitate forest restoration and monitoring, though it’s currently limited in extent because the team must fly the UAV many times, from widely dispersed launch sites, to cover expansive areas.
4. Surveying wildlife – The birds-eye view from a device less threatening than a human on the ground is helping researchers survey populations of various animal species. ConservationDrones started with two scientists wanting a faster, more effective technique to count orangutan nests and monitor surrounding rainforest. More recently, researchers count nesting sea turtles more efficiently and accurately than they can from the ground and to use video footage to monitor habitat loss and erosion on Raine Island, Queensland, Australia.
Similarly, Nature Conservancy scientists count the thousands of sandhill cranes roosting in flooded fields without scaring them. They fit a UAV with an infrared camera to survey the birds at night, and since cranes trap heat in their feathers to keep warm, they appear cooler than surrounding shallow water in the IR footage. While still in the testing phase, the team thinks the UAVs will make the surveying more efficient, more effective, and thus more likely to be repeated.
5. Mapping and monitoring habitat quality on the plains – World Wildlife Fund, Fort Belknap Reservation Fish and Wildlife Department, and partners are testing the use of a UAV to map and monitor the size and burrow density of prairie dog colonies to better understand habitat quality for both the prairie dogs, a keystone species of North American grasslands, and the endangered black-footed ferret that preys on them.
6. Measuring habitat quality in lakes – Researchers from University of California Berkeley and University of Nebraska-Lincoln measured thermal changes in lakes over time using a sensor hanging down from a small drone, enabling high-resolution 3D thermal mapping of small water bodies, which can help them assess habitat quality for aquatic species.
7. Seeing below ground – UAVs carrying thermal cameras allow researchers to search for underground structures, which absorb the sun’s heat and reflect it back out in the evening. Buried stones, including archeological ruins, tend to retain heat longer than dry soil around them does. So in the early morning, the stones will warmer than the surrounding earth and can be detected by a thermal camera. This technique that showed archeologists the location and size of underground human structures might also improve our understanding of soil properties.
8. Addressing human-elephant conflict – Park rangers in Tanzania are working to reduce crop raiding by elephants by taking advantage of the fear elephants have of UAVs to fly around them and herd them away from fields and back to the safety of protected areas, thus sparing both farmers and elephants. This fear of the UAVs may be due to the animals’ concern over swarming bees, whose sound is similar to the buzz of a flying UAV.
9. Remotely charging batteries – One of the key challenges for field work is keeping equipment charged, so a wireless, drone-deployed charging system would be a big hit, especially for field biologists deploying sensors in hard-to-access places for extended periods. Teams from University of the Pacific and University of Nebraska have developed a system that allows a UAV to fly to a bridge, identify which of several batteries need charging, and wirelessly recharge it from the air. Over time, the UAV can make repeat visits to recharge each of the batteries and keep the target sensors working and the information flowing.
10. Monitoring trails and finding lost people on them – Researchers at the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the University of Zurich have successfully tested (but not yet deployed) small UAVs that can recognize and follow an unknown forest trail using artificial intelligence in the form of a Deep Neural Network , a computer algorithm that learns to solve complex tasks from a set of “training examples.” The team trained their quadcopter to autonomously navigate the complex environment of a forest interior using 20,000 images taken on other trails, and it found its way along trails, showing promise for other forest landscapes.
As with all promising technologies, UAV use still has a way to go to meet its full potential. Various countries currently bans their use, and technical challenges—such as finding reliable methods for avoiding obstacles and handling the uncertain and changing weather conditions (such as sudden high winds) —hinder their deployment in remote areas.
In addition, precise drone piloting is harder than many beginners realize: “If you want more than just a picture, then significant skill, expensive programs, and high-end computers are necessary,” says Franklin Percival, who leads the University of Florida’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Program.
This page highlights a host of additional UAV uses from various sectors. Please share your own in the comment section!