Drones are being used widely for environmental research and wildlife preservation. To shed the negative connotation, they are more commonly referred to as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), or even eco-drones or conservation drones. These eco-drones do everything from monitor polar ice melt to help determine animal migration patterns. They can access very hard-to-reach sites with very minimal impact.
Drones can track and photograph species that are otherwise hard to monitor, such as orangutans deep in the jungle. This information helps conservationists better understand the impact of land use changes. In Mexico, authorities are using drones to protect against a reported surge in egg poaching of a threatened species of sea turtle that lays its eggs in the sand.
Students at a Massachusetts college have developed a ‘Snot Bot’ drone to collect whale mucus as the whales eject it from their blowholes. They want to use the mucus to study how whales experience stress. Other researchers are using drones to look at the size of gray whales as they migrate thousands of miles as an indicator of their health. The whales need a lot of blubber to make the journey since they don’t eat along the way.
Drones are being used to spot sharks off the coast of California near beaches. This helps lifeguards monitor the waters and protect swimmers.
The Kenya Wildlife Service is deploying drones to all of the country’s national parks and reserves in an effort to provide 24-hour surveillance against poachers. A pilot program determined that drones reduced poaching by up to 96% in these areas. In 2014, over 1,000 rhinos were poached in South Africa.
Drones can also be noisy and intrusive in some cases, and have been attacked by eagles and hawks. They have also been shown to startle bears and to elevate their heart rates.
When it comes to climate change, drones are being used to study ice melt at a finer scale than satellites. They are also being deployed in an effort to track black carbon, or soot, which is made up of tiny dark particles that absorb sunlight and reduce the reflectivity of ice and snow cover, thus adding heat to the atmosphere.
In China, drones are being used to monitor air pollution, which is a major problem for the rapidly urbanizing country. The drones fly over power plants, refineries, and other emissions’ sources to monitor potential pollution violations.
The U.S. government has very strict rules when it comes to using drones for civilian activities, such as scientific research and wildlife monitoring, and researchers must obtain a permit. The rules are much more lax for recreational drone use, and many amateur wildlife drone videos, while not suitable for official use, can help raise public awareness about important environmental issues.
A company called BioCarbon Engineering has developed a drone that can plant trees. It uses a tiny cannon to shoot seeds, nutrients, and fertilizer into the ground. The designers hope it will help regrow forests that have been destroyed by mining, agriculture, and lumber use. In Oregon, researchers are using drones to help manage potato crops. Capable of zooming in on a single leaf, the drones can help detect if the crops are getting enough water and fertilizer.
See, drones aren't all bad news.
Drone Nation, reported by Fusion’s Mariana Van Zeller, looks at how drone technology is changing the way we see our world, and, increasingly, how the world can see us.
Watch the full special here.
Ari Phillips is a senior editor overseeing Fusion's environmental coverage in the form of Project Earth.