Ecological & geographical uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, are airborne vehicles that can be controlled remotely without the need of an onboard pilot. UAV’s are controlled from the ground with varying levels of autonomy. The potential possibilities of UAVs are endless and they have revolutionized a number of fields. They are now widely used for agricultural, scientific, surveillance, and commercial purposes. The fields of ecology and geography are one of the beneficiaries of UAVs. Studying large ecosystems and extensive topography has always been a challenge for researchers but with the unmatched monitoring and imaging capabilities of UAVs, researchers are now able to accomplish more than they’ve ever been able to. Within these fields, there a number of potential uses of UAVs.

A possible use of UAVs is in the study of the atmospheric climate. The fact that UAVs are unmanned means that they can be sent to locations with dangerous levels of pollution in order to collect a variety of ecological information including measures of solar radiation, greenhouse gases, aerosol particles and heavy metal emissions. This information is useful in comprehending the levels of air pollution, climate change and global warming patterns in various areas. Researchers are in the process of developing highly sensitive sensors in order to widen the measurability scope of UAVs.

Information collected by UAVs is extremely valuable in the prediction of weather. UAVs can be used to forecast a number of meteorological conditions, but even more exciting is their use to study these conditions in action. Hurricanes, for example, can be studied by sending UAVs right into the eye of the storm, something that was previously impossible due to the insurmountable danger to human life. UAVs are capable of observing and exploring enormous storms as they develop, evolve, and eventually culminate. The information collected helps scientists understand these storms and ultimately forecast their development.

The technology behind UAVs makes them ideal for environmental protection and conservation. They can be dispatched and recalled on demand with ease, and they provide up-to-date imagery and information that cannot be comprised. UAVs are the most convenient and cost-effective way to monitor ecosystems and wildlife, as they are able to cover large expanses with minimal intervention. Another advantage of UAVs in monitoring is their discretion due to their minimalistic design that often leads them to be mistaken for birds. UAVs are suitable for monitoring due to their efficiency and negligible interference to the environment they are observing, which is particularly important in the protection of wildlife. UAVs are exceptionally valuable in the fight against poaching, deforestation, and other environmental ills.

Other ecological and geographical uses of UAVs include aerial and 3-D mapping, maintenance of renewable energy sources, river and flood assessment, and disaster relief, among others. UAVs can also be used in educational and research settings. In order to understand the potential use of UAVs within scientific research, below are three peer-reviewed studies that have utilized UAV technology within their research.

The first study titled Approaching Birds with Drones: First Experiments & Ethical Guidelines was published in 2014 and sought to analyze the use of UAVs in approaching sensitive wildlife. The researchers carried out 204 approach flights on 3 varieties of bird species in order to test the impact of the color, speed, and angle of the UAVs on the birds. The study found that approach speed, UAV color and frequent flights had no considerable effect on the birds but did recommend that UAVs should be launched 100 meters from the birds (Vas et al. 2).

The second study titled Assessing Biodiversity in Forests Using Very High-Resolution Images and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles investigated the methodological use of UAVs to collect data on large-scale biodiversity losses and found that aerial images of canopy gaps provided by UAVs were impactful in assessing biodiversity in forests (Getzin et al. 402). The study, therefore, determined that high-resolution images of canopy object variables within animal and plant diversity taken by UAVs are a suitable approach to studying changes in biodiversity and identifying losses.

The third study titled Warming Trends in Asia Amplified by Brown Cloud Solar Absorption utilized 3 UAVs, during 18 flight missions, to collect data on atmospheric brown clouds. The UAVs dispatched small measuring instruments that were used to determine the levels of aerosol, soot and solar fluxes within the clouds (Ramanathan et al. 575). The UAVs were also used to measure direct solar heating rates. Using the data collected through the UAVs, the researchers were able to identify a correlation between the brown clouds and atmospheric solar heating rates.

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  1. Getzin, Stephan, Kerstin Wiegand, and Ingo Schöning. “Assessing biodiversity in forests using very high‐resolution images and unmanned aerial vehicles.” Methods in Ecology and Evolution 3.2 (2012): 397-404. Retrieved from
  2. Ramanathan, Veerabhadran, et al. “Warming trends in Asia amplified by brown cloud solar absorption.” Nature 448.7153 (2007): 575-578. Retrieved from
  3. Vas, Elisabeth, et al. “Approaching birds with drones: first experiments and ethical guidelines.” Biology letters 11.2 (2015): 20140754. Retrieved from
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