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Eco-drones - a new eye in the sky

Posted on 09 December 2014.

Drones were once reserved for military use, but are now protecting the environment. They are called "eco-drones" and are a new way for scientists to observe the world. And protect it.

A new eye in the sky

The first advantage of drones is of course their autonomy. "When you manage to fully automate the drone without needing to control it remotely, it all starts to get very interesting," says Philippe Boutemy, Head of Industrial Systems and Technologies at Veolia Research and Innovation (VERI). "You just have to set a course and to program its mission. Then you either capture the data collected during the flight in real time, or recover it once the drone has returned to base.

With an integrated a camera and / or several sensors, drones can also capture HD images and cover inaccessible areas - a low cost solution that "fills the gaps between satellite imagery and measurements taken directly on the ground.

Drones serving the environment

The first applications for eco-drones have been in observing nature and environmental changes. They take measurements and obtain images, contributing to a better understanding of natural environments and any changes they may be experiencing. "Satellite imagery provides good images for studying deforestation, desertification and glacier retreat," explains Philippe Boutemy. However, if we want really accurate information, a drone can be a real asset. "It would be possible to imagine planting self-powered sensors using harvested energy to monitor a particular area. The drones would pass over this area, and the sensors would send data that would be interpreted on the ground. It would give us information about any potential threats or “natural” causes for the deterioration of the natural environment in a particular location.

As for the possibilities of using drones to protect biodiversity, they are popping up all over the world (French). In England, they monitor threatened bird species without disturbing them, and in Germany they protect fawns from combine harvesters.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, eco-drones are already used to monitor destruction. In 2011, Brazil acquired 14 drones that it uses in fighting illegal logging, mining and poaching. They can also be useful in helping to prevent natural disasters, fires, etc. Quick and easy to deploy, they can venture into dangerous places – the eye of a hurricane, inside a volcano...

Drones now come in so many different shapes and sizes that that there is one for everything. The potential is enormous!

"The only barrier i can see is our imagination"

Is Philippe Boutemy’s answer when asked about the prospects offered by drones. "Drones can do so many different things. Some are just the size of a bee, others are as big as a glider. There is such diversity now that they can be adapted to all sorts of different uses. The potential is enormous!" He added a rider however saying, “the risk is wanting to substitute them for technologies that have already proven their worth. Drones yes, but not everywhere and not for everything. Needs should be clearly identified and the relevance and viability of their use properly evaluated beforehand.”

Will we see major international initiatives that make use of drones? According to UNEP, programs such as REDD + could well benefit. Will we see the emergence of collaborative projects like Ushahidi (French), where private individuals make use of this technology and crowd source funding for environmental monitoring for example? The Global Forest Watch project already uses drones to help monitor forests.

The only obstacle to the future development of eco-drones will be our imagination!

En savoir plus :

- A new eye in the sky: Eco-drones
- Drones and environmental surveillance (French)