Measuring and Monitoring Environmental Impact with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

By Ben Gross | May 8th, 2023

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As the world’s population continues to increase and rising global temperatures contribute to more frequent extreme weather events, gathering environmental data has become an even more critical endeavor. This data is essential for quantifying the impact that humans are having on the planet, and holds the answers that will help us to best mitigate the damage done and prevent further degradation.

Traditionally, environmental data has been collected via one of three methods. The cheapest is via manual land or marine surveying, which is slow, requires significant manpower, and can be hazardous or even impossible in certain conditions and locations. The use of manned aircraft and helicopters is more efficient and provides a critical bird’s eye view, but is also expensive and can contribute to carbon emissions.

The third traditional method of environmental monitoring is via the use of satellite data. While a wide array of factors can be determined from this data, including erosion, water levels, land cover and atmospheric composition, this too has its drawbacks. The distance of satellites from the Earth’s surface means that imagery may be low-resolution as well as obscured by clouds. The availability of data is also dependent on the orbital pattern of the satellite, and acquiring up-to-date information on demand is often not possible.

Efficient and effective environmental monitoring and research with drones

The use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for gathering environmental data is becoming increasingly common due to the rapid maturation of drone technology as well as its accessibility. Originally the domain of educational facilities and scientific research institutions, data gathering via drones is now also being undertaken by more environmentally-conscious companies who wish to understand the impact of their operations.

Drones combine many of the advantages of the previously-mentioned methods, while also providing an answer for many of the disadvantages. They provide a low barrier to entry, being cheaper and easier to operate than manned aircraft. The data gathered is often at higher resolution than satellite imagery, capturing more detail and thus not requiring a specialized level of expertise to interpret.

Are drone operations really sustainable?

One of the goals of environmental monitoring and conversation is to carry out the work sustainably, without further adding to the problem. Unlike manned aircraft and helicopters, many small drone platforms are all-electric, which at first glance sounds ideal due to these unmanned aircraft producing no emissions.

However, other factors need to be taken into consideration when assessing the total environmental footprint of drone operations. The manufacture of lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, which are the most common form of battery technology for drone applications, generates a significant amount of emissions and can also have other negative effects on the local environment. In many regions around the world, the electricity used to recharge these batteries is likely to originate from fossil fuel-driven power stations. So while electric battery-powered drones are an improvement over diesel-powered aircraft, it may be possible to do better.

Hydrogen fuel cells are gaining in popularity as an alternative propulsion option for drones. These devices combine hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the air to create electricity, producing nothing but water vapor as an emission. Hydrogen is also much more energy-dense than any battery technology, meaning that for the same overall weight of propulsion system, you can achieve significantly longer flight times and cover greater distances and areas.

Hydrogen fuel cell capabilities for drones are a relatively new development and are still undergoing significant research and development. However, once the technology matures, they will be an ideal match for many unmanned monitoring and data-gathering platforms.

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Versatile solutions for environmental data gathering and conservation

Equipped with specific payloads, drones can be used for a variety of environmental and conservation tasks. Many drones are highly versatile when it comes to payload integration, and a range of sensors and equipment can be swapped out on the aircraft. This means that one drone can be sufficient to carry out many different missions. Swarming technology can also be applied to act as a force multiplier, and UAVs may also co-ordinate with USVs (unmanned surface vessels) and UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) to provide a multi-domain measurement capability.

Examples of applications include:

  • Using gas sensors to measure emission levels and air quality, both to assess the impact upon climate change and to minimize breathing and health issues.
  • Multispectral sensors can be used to provide key indicators of soil and vegetation health. In addition to being useful in the wild, multispectral data can also be used by agriculture professionals to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which can often negatively impact local ecosystems.
  • With the help of computer vision and machine learning, aerial imagery can be used to monitor and assess biodiversity. The populations of many plant and animal species, from whales down to sea turtles, can be regularly recorded without the need to send humans into the habitat. Drones can also be highly effective at detecting and deterring poachers and trespassers.
  • Mapping and 3D modeling can be used to measure the scale of processes such as deforestation, erosion, and the melting of ice. With regular measurement and high-accuracy data, even the smallest of changes can be recorded over time.
  • Drones are ideal for providing an early warning system for wildfires as well as oil and toxic chemical spills. A real-time eye-in-the-sky capability allows such events to be responded to rapidly before too much damage is done.
  • Drones can be used to capture accurate meteorological data such as temperature, humidity and wind speeds, and unmanned aircraft have even been designed to literally fly into the eye of the storm.

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Long-range communications for drone monitoring

Many environmental monitoring missions take place over large areas, or in regions where maintaining radio line of sight may be tricky. While some of these applications will be in wilderness areas away from cellular towers, there are others, such as pollution monitoring, that need to be undertaken closer to more built-up areas and can thus take advantage of cellular communications.

Click here to learn more about the benefits of cellular communications for long-range and BVLOS drones.

If you are looking to develop a drone-based platform for monitoring and data collection that can capitalize on the benefits of 4G and 5G connectivity, Elsight’s Halo platform could be a vital piece of the puzzle. The secure communications solution can utilize up to four datalinks from different cellular providers, providing you with seamless failover capabilities for maximum safety and redundancy.

These multiple datalinks can also be aggregated, enabling your drone to get the most out of all available bandwidth and making Halo essential for real-time video and data streaming applications.

Halo also features an extremely low SWaP (size, weight and power) footprint, providing minimal drain on your drone’s power source and maximizing the resources available for flight as well as the mission-critical payloads.

To find out more, please get in touch!

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