Drones are increasingly being used to map the changing environment by monitoring and collecting critical data. The investments in the past decade have been so huge that the annual global market could reach over $40 billion by 2024. While becoming smaller, faster, smarter, safer and easier to fly, this difference in the investment itself signifies the growth of the commercial drone industry. The Integrated Remote Sensing Studio (IRSS) at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry has been researching the use of drones particularly in the area of environmental conservation. Work to date has included characterizing forest regeneration, improving forest inventory methods, mapping fire patterns, estimating jellyfish populations and mapping native plant species.

Drones can help fight climate change

The most important aspect is easily deploying drones in hard to access environments allowing researchers to collect information that has previously been too expensive and time-consuming to gather.

The environment changes are also important where drones come in handy in helping quantify climate changes, fire attacks or change in vegetation. Researchers have used drones to measure surface reflectivity, logging how much solar energy a landscape reflects and absorbs. This measurement is crucial for understanding climate change and can help forest planners determine which locations to plant trees to get the most climate benefit. Satellites typically gathered this information in the past, but drones have the advantage of being more agile.

Gathering data in this way also improves researcher safety: Helicopter and small plane crashes are the leading cause of on the job death for wildlife biologists. For all these purposes there are specific types of drones used. Imagery and high-definition video-using cameras, like those in a smartphone, are commonly used. Laser sensors that shoot pulses of light help researchers create 3D representations of vegetated areas. The hardware advancements allow the drones to stay longer in the sky and capture more data.

changing environment results in forest fires
The rapidly changing environment results in forest fires, floods, etc.

Following safety protocols

Laws and regulations are being improved to increase safety on how drone technology is used. Governments across the world need drone operators to have visual contact with their drones. It can be difficult for the operator to keep the drone in sight in situations like flying a drone over a forest. According to specific safety protocols, operators can apply for a Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) permit. These measures improve the usability of a drone in remote locations.