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By Robert Bright
Supporting sustainable energy
One of the areas where there are more drones working today is solar farms. These can range from one to one hundred hectares, and maintaining them manually can be impractical and especially dangerous, as engineers want to inspect the panels when the sun is at its highest and strongest.
Companies like the French operator Dronotec have built drones that include cameras that provide thermal images, which offer an aerial view to point out panels that may be damaged, covered in dust, or covered by invasive vegetation. Later, they process that information and return to these specific locations to fix the panels at the most convenient time, making maintenance more efficient.
Another of the industries that greatly benefits from drone technology is wind farms. Traditionally, inspections consist of hooking operators to cables and hanging them from the structure, but companies like Britain's Cyberhawk use drones to send real-time video and 3D images of the turbine blades. Only when some faults are discovered do engineers move and hang from the steel cables.
A mission for emissions
In addition to being used to support sustainable energy, drones are also being adapted to monitor pollution. Astart-up in Finland called Aeromon has been able to detect and analyze 70 different industrial emissions and trace the air quality over large areas. In the past, these emissions may have gone unnoticed as sensors at ground level or higher altitudes would not have detected them. However, the versatility of UAVs means that this is no longer the norm and that the data provided gives authorities more weight to improve legislation regarding emissions.
This new use for drones is also happening in other places. They are being implemented to monitor methane levels in UK landfills, emissions from ships in European waters and gas leaks in the United States. Similarly, drones are also being modified to detect polluted waters, as in the projectWaterfly from MIT that looks for cyanobacteria in water and can be used in remote areas that are difficult to access.
It is precisely this ability of the drone to reach problem areas that has been most effective in the field of conservation. In the savannah, in a tropical forest or on the banks of rivers, drones can detect and monitor animal populations, deforestation or water levels. They can also discover poachers and alert the police to their location, as well as observe if illegal logging activity may be taking place.
They have already been used very effectively to protect whales from illegal fishing thanks to the conservation society Sea Shepherd, while another organization of similar name, Air Shepherd activates drones at night to stop poachers that kill them. rhinos and elephants for their ivory. In the future they may even be able to contribute to restoring the natural habitat of wildlife. The BioCarbon Engineering company has designed a drone that plants trees quickly and efficiently using a small cannon to shoot pods into the ground containing the germinated seeds.
Concern for environmental conservation is linked to disaster prevention and drones can also help in this regard. The Lamon Doherty ground-based observatory monitors Arctic thaw using drones to reach tricky areas. Equipped with infrared cameras, they collect data on temperature changes and melt water. On the other side of the spectrum, drones have also proven useful for tracking lava flows, as well as detecting and restraining wildfires. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, they were used to tally damage and plan reconstructions, as well as being prepared to launch emergency medical equipment into remote areas faster than otherwise.
Drones for agriculture
Finally, drones are also useful for working on farms. They specialize in spraying crops, applying fertilizers in a more efficient way than airplanes and reducing costs by 20%. They are also ideal for monitoring crop health, livestock location and water levels, helping to improve yields and provide greater cost efficiency. Additionally, farmers are also using them to map the terrain and assess the land. A Moscow team did just this in a wheat fertilization project, resulting in a 20% reduction in nitrogen released into the environment. There are even examples of drones that have replaced the work of traditional sheepdogs. Although we think this is an issue where a red line should be drawn!
With all of this in mind, with drones taking on new and positive roles in the environment, it won't take long before we stop thinking of them as destructive technology and begin to see them as an essential part of the well-being of the planet.